Social and mental health integration may help prevent, treat obesity in teens

WASHINGTON – High school health education classes that focus exclusively on topics of physical activity and nutrition may be a thing of the past. It turns out, integrating cognitive-behavioral components into health curricula makes for happier and healthier teens.

The national research

A recent study conducted at The Ohio State University and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that making mental health a part of students’ health education lessons, compliments physical and nutritional components of a high school health education curriculum. And the results are showing on the teens’ waistlines.

“Nutrition and physical activity-based interventions are often tested when it comes to preventing obesity, but mental and psychosocial health can also be contributing factors,” says Dr. Patricia A. Grady in an official press statement. Grady is the director at the National Institute of Nursing Research, a supporter in the research conducted at The Ohio State University.

In the study’s 2010-2012 randomized controlled trial, teens enrolled in a class that integrated goal setting, problem solving and healthy coping skills, in addition to small amounts of physical activity and healthy eating, had significantly higher levels of physical activity and had a significantly lower mean BMI, compared to the control group of teens who did not receive the program.

The program tested in the study, called the COPE/TEEN program, was developed by Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University.

“Teens who are overweight or obese experience a higher prevalence of school, social and mental health problems,” Melnyk tells WTOP. “The (COPE/TEEN) program builds their self-esteem, helps them to engage in positive self-talk, to cope in healthy ways with stress, to regulate their emotions in healthy ways and to communicate effectively.”

What’s happening locally

While Grady and Melnyk say the COPE/TEEN program needs to be evaluated on a wider scale with groups of high-risk teens before it can be recommended to schools, some local schools are already blending physical and mental health lessons in high school classes.

Liz Payne, coordinator for health, family life education and physical education for Fairfax County Public Schools, says this integrative approach to health education is already taking place in Fairfax County classrooms. And while it’s not the COPE/TEEN program, it’s a start.

Fairfax schools currently have a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to address subjects of fitness and nutrition in grades K-12. But Payne says the cognitive-behavioral topics are just as prominent as physical/nutrition topics in the schools’ ninth-and 10th-grade curricula.

“In regards to mental, emotional and social health

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