Healthy Behaviors

Health Disparities and Equity

The HHS Office of Minority Health developed Minority Population Profiles that include detailed demographic and health status information, including obesity, among youth and adults in several racial and ethnic groups.

Other than the first year of life, there is no other developmental period during which individuals grow more than during the period of adolescence.1 These years are the time to form positive habits that will improve adolescents’ long-term health and well-being. There are several behaviors that are especially important to support health into adulthood, including:2,3,4

  • Eating a nutritious diet
  • Being active
  • Getting an adequate amount of sleep

In addition to daily health habits such as good nutrition, physical activity, and sleep, adolescents also benefit from regularly visiting healthcare providers for clinical preventive services.

Nutrition in Adolescence

Good nutrition is a key part of adolescents’ health. Youth gain more control over their food and drink choices as they grow, so adolescence is a great time to help them build good habits they can take into adulthood. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “MyPlate” shares recommendations for the amount of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein that adolescents need to eat to stay healthy.

In addition to these general recommendations, some adolescents may have more specific nutritional needs. For example, adolescent girls tend to have lower levels of iron than adolescent boys, so they need to eat more foods rich in iron that are easily absorbed by the body. These foods include lean meats (for example, pork tenderloin), poultry (chicken, turkey), and seafood. Legumes (beans and peas), dark-green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens), and foods enriched or fortified with iron (breads and ready-to-eat cereals) are also sources of iron.5 The MyPlate Plan helps adolescents create a meal plan that’s right for them.

Obesity and Barriers to Good Nutrition

Obesity is measured using body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. An adolescent is considered obese if their BMI is in the 95th percentile for their sex and age.6 In 2017-2018, more than one in five adolescents ages 12-19 were categorized as obese.6 Obesity can increase health risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases.5 Among children and adolescents, obesity is most common among older Mexican-American children and black girls.5 Good nutrition among adolescents promotes health and can decrease BMI.

Even with an understanding of good nutrition, adolescents still can lack access to healthy food.7 Some may live in rural areas that are consider food deserts, or places where access to fresh food is limited. Cost can be another barrier to healthy food. For example, healthy eating can cost $1.50 more per day compared to an unhealthy diet.8

Physical Activity in Adolescence

Daily physical activity improves health, fitness, and overall quality of life. It is one of the Healthy People 2030 goals.9 Adolescents should get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each day. Such activities require more energy than less intense exercise (for example, walking at a slow pace). Ideally, these activities should be varied. Some physical activity examples include:

  • Brisk walking, cycling, swimming
  • Running, jumping rope, playing basketball
  • Lifting weights, yoga

Hear how teens across the country stay active and learn ways to get adolescents moving from OPA’s What It’s Like – Physical Activity video. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion developed the Move Your Way® campaign to help people live healthier lives through increased physical activity.

How Physical Activity Supports Adolescent Health

Different types of physical activity strengthen different parts of the body – some strengthen the heart, others the bones, and others the muscles. Some activities, like running, can strengthen all three. Because adolescents’ bodies are growing, strengthening all these areas are important. Still, Health.gov’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans notes that most of adolescents’ physical activity time should involve heart-strengthening exercise. Health.gov's National Youth Sports Strategy offers actionable strategies for parents, coaches, organizations, communities, and policymakers to support youth sports participation for all.

How the Built Environment Affects Physical Activity

To exercise regularly, adolescents need spaces that are suitable for physical activity. These spaces must also be safe. Teens who think their neighborhoods are unsafe can get less exercise than teens who think their neighborhoods are safe.10 Safe spaces for exercise may include sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

Adolescents’ access to spaces that support physical activity varies. Teens who live in lower income households, have parents with lower levels of education (for example, no college degree), and live in rural areas are less likely to have access to supportive spaces than other teens, such as those who live in higher income households.11

How to Support Physical Activity for Youth with Disabilities or Chronic Conditions

All adolescents need physical activity. However, physical activity is not “one size fits all.” It can and should be modified for the needs of each individual.3

Adolescents with disabilities are more likely to be inactive than their peers without disabilities.3 Healthcare professionals can encourage regular physical activity for adolescents with disabilities.3 Programs and activities can be adapted to improve access for youth with disabilities, which in turn makes it easier for all youth to get the physical activity they need. The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability recommends several family activities that are often accessible.

One in four adolescents has a chronic health condition, such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma.12 Regular physical activity is important for youth with these conditions since it can help to improve physical wellness.13 It also can reduce the risk of advancing current chronic conditions and the odds of developing additional chronic conditions.14

Sleep in Adolescence

Sleep is an important part of adolescents’ health and well-being. Not getting adequate sleep at night can put adolescents at a higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and poor mental health, and other problems.14 According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the optimal amount of sleep for adolescents ages 13 to 18 is 8 to 10 hours.14 In 2019, less than a quarter of high school students reported that they do not get the recommended eight hours of sleep on an average school night.15 Inadequate sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.16

Footnotes

1 DeHart, G., Sroufe, A. & Cooper, R. (2004). Child development: Its nature and course. (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw, Hill. back to top

2 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. (2020). Scientific report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/2020-advisory-committee-reportback to top

3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelinesback to top

4 Centers for Disease Control. (2020). Sleep in middle and high school students. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/features/students-sleep.htm. back to top

5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2015-2020. Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf - PDFback to top

6 Fryar, C., Carroll, M., & Afful, J. (2020) Prevalence of overweight, obesity, and severe obesity among children and adolescents aged 2–19 years: United States, 1963–1965 through 2017–2018. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity-child-17-18/obesity-child.htmback to top

7 Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2020). Access to Foods that Support Healthy Eating Patterns. Retrieved from https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/social-determinants-health/literature-summaries/access-foods-support-healthy-eating-patternsback to top

8 Rao, M., Afshin, A., Singh, G., & Mozaffarian, D. (2013). Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004277. back to top

9 Lenhart, C.M, Wiemken, A., Hanlon, A., Perkett, M., & Patterson, F. (2017). Perceived neighborhood safety related to physical activity but not recreational screen-based sedentary behavior in adolescents. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1-9. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4756-z. back to top

10 Waston, K., Harris, C., Carlson, S., Dorn, J., & Fulton, J. (2016). Disparities in adolescents’ residence in neighborhoods supportive of physical activity — United States, 2011–2012. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6523a2.htmback to top

11 President’s Council on Sports Fitness & Nutrition. (2017). Physical activity initiative. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/physical-activity-initiative/index.htmlback to top

12 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Healthy schools. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/healthy-schools.htm. back to top

13 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. (2018). 2018 physical activity guidelines advisory committee scientific report. Retrieved from https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines/scientific-report. back to top

14 Centers for Disease Control. (2020). Sleep in middle and high school students. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/features/students-sleep.htmback to top

15 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 1991-2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Available at http://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/. Accessed on February 26, 2021. back to top

16 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Sleep and chronic disease. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/chronic_disease.html. back to top