Statistics on overall teenage health are grim. Obesity and depression rates are the highest ever and continue to climb, the number of metabolically healthy teenagers continues to decline, and all significant statistics related to health and well-being are going in the wrong direction. Why are these statistics vital to notice and comprehend? Because teens who are unhealthy today are at a much greater risk of being unhealthier adults, substantially increasing their chances of obtaining an illness or disease. Obese teens are unfairly put behind the eight ball and have to play a different and more formidable game than people of a healthier weight. The knowledge and education for daily actionable steps teenagers and families routinely need to take for better health are absent and scarcely examined. The promising news about these dire statistics is that there are solutions to stop these growing numbers and potentially reverse them for the better. It starts with the education piece on basic lifestyle choices surrounding sleep, diet, and movement and what changes can produce healthier teenagers.
22.2% of kids aged 12-19 are considered obese. This statistic has tripled since 1975, even though the amount of calories consumed by teens is approximately the same. People who are obese have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. A calculation of body weight, height, and waist circumference is used to find BMI. People who are obese are at a greater risk of having high blood pressure, type II diabetes, breathing problems such as asthma, sleep issues such as sleep apnea, and joint pain. Around 80% of obese adolescents will still be obese in adulthood. Obese teens are more likely to have social and psychological problems, such as depression, and are at an increased risk of bullying and poor self-esteem. Obesity is much more than just being overweight and a physical issue. Mental, psychological, social, and emotional health facets are negatively affected. Working on helping teens move out of the obesity category and closer to a healthy weight needs to be a priority.
13.84% of teenagers had at least one depressive episode in 2021. Depressive episodes include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, loss of interest in most activities, anxiety, agitation, and worthlessness, to more serious such as frequent or recurring thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts. Depressive episodes affect how teens feel, think, and behave and can lead to various emotional and physical problems. Often, hurting teens turn to drugs or alcohol to help them feel better, masking symptoms in the short term but likely worsening depression over time. Depressive episodes will likely persist into adulthood if teens are left untreated or don’t receive the proper support and resources.
20% of teenagers are metabolically healthy, meaning four out of five are not. The five markers for metabolic health are blood sugar levels, triglyceride levels, LDL levels, blood pressure, and waist circumference. All five markers must be in the healthy range for a teen to be metabolically healthy. Metabolically healthy teens are at a much lower risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases and illnesses.
The root cause of these unhealthy markers comes down to basic lifestyle habits of what our teenagers eat, how they sleep, and how much and how often they move. There are other variables to one’s general health, and past traumas, big or small, cannot be neglected. Still, one cannot speak of physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and social health without talking about sleep, diet, and movement. Sleep is vital for a developing teenager and needs to be a priority. Middle schoolers who went to bed by 10 pm or earlier were 24% less likely to suffer from depression and 20% less likely to have suicidal ideation than those who went to sleep after midnight. Adolescents who sleep less than eight hours per night are more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers with sufficient sleep. When it comes to food and diet, a teen cannot expect to be healthy when two-thirds of their diet comes out of a bag or box. Ultra-processed foods are loaded with unhealthy ingredients and are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and other toxic ingredients. Consuming more whole, one-ingredient foods simply and effectively promotes better overall general health. Lastly, screens from phones and tablets cannot consistently replace time when a kid could otherwise move and play outside. Teens who get outside and move (a 10-minute walk) are less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other health issues. One out of four teenagers today get the recommended amount of sixty minutes of physical activity every day.
Our norms as a society do not revolve around health and wellness. There needs to be more emphasis on diet, sleep, and movement. It is a tall mountain to climb. But what choice do we have? Because a healthy kid and teen are exponentially more likely to be healthy adults. And healthy adults are more productive, happier, and, more importantly, kind human beings.