Adolescence – an age of health opportunity?

Prof Dr Lucia Reisch,  Chair of I Family Consumer Science WP asks…

Lucia Reisch says:
“Adolescence can be an ‘age of opportunity’ for establishing healthier lifestyles.”

“The recently published Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, a WHO collaborative cross-national study ( offers some worrying insights into the lifestyle habits of young people which provide even more justification for the investment being made in the I Family study.

Every four years, this WHO survey, involving over 200,000 boys and girls aged 11, 13 and 15 years from some 40 countries and regions across Europe and North America, examines a wide range of topics significant to this age group from liking school to body weight, energy expenditure to bullying in school.

This year, the Report Summary states: ‘While young people enjoy better health and development opportunities than ever before, many are involved in behaviors that compromise their health (such as smoking, drinking and having an unhealthy diet) and report poor self-related health.’ (Currie et al. 2012, p. 1)

What is particularly disturbing is the fact that these unhealthy behaviours drastically increase with both age and low social-economic status.

In other words, even if parents (and hopefully also kindergartens and schools) have managed to help children develop healthy eating and activity patterns into their ‘tweens’ (10-12 years of age), there is a distinct probability that, as teenagers, these healthy routines are lost and are substituted by unhealthier ones such as skipping breakfast, eating less fruit and vegetables, having more soft drinks, not getting enough sleep, smoking and drinking.

While this might not be of surprise to parents of teens, it is still disheartening to see how often this pattern is repeated. Yet, the report also shows that health patterns vary significantly across countries, and also between the genders, suggesting that the social, economic and environmental contexts that the tweens and teens experience influence their choices significantly.

Based on better knowledge, more qualitative and quantitative empirical evidence which will be provided by the I Family study, public policy might be able to contribute to creating and reinforcing the social environments – in particular the family, but also peers and schools – within which young people can be supported to retain healthy habits and establish self-protective strategies.

And there are some good examples cited in the Report such as Sweden (one of the countries involved in I Family) having the lowest consumption of soft drinks by 11 year olds of any country in the world. This has been attributed to strict adherence to the Nordic Dietary Guidelines in school diets and enforced regulation governing marketing and advertising activities directed at children.

In my view, this example demonstrates that adolescence can be – and should be made to be – ‘an age of opportunity’ for maintaining and establishing healthier lifestyles that last for life.

Lucia Reisch is Professor for Intercultural Consumer Behaviour and Consumer Policy at Copenhagen Business School in Copenhagen, Denmark. She chairs the Work Package “Consumer Science” in I Family.


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