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The goal of creating and maintaining wellness among adults has gained popularity recently; however this popularity has come at a time when physical education is disappearing from our schools and obesity, even in toddlers, is on the rise—two factors that do not indicate improvements, nor a focus, on the well-being of American citizens. Here I examine methods for creating a culture of wellness in schools and life. The first section defines wellness and its related components—internal and external sources. The second section examines the history of wellness and youth, with attention to changes in health beliefs over the past 50 years. The third section discusses why physical wellness is a critical priority in the 21st century, followed by an examination of modern physical education curricula. The last two sections present a model for reviving physical education through progressive wellness education design and discuss policy implications for successful long-term implementation.
What Is Wellness?
To be well is not the same as being healthy. The latter implies that one is free of disease and infirmity and has the ability to respond to the changing environment on both a cellular and social level. Health is generally based on physiological variables, such as blood pressure, muscular strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular conditioning, all of which work together to keep the body in balance. Maintaining a high level of health is important, but it is just one component of being well. Although the term wellness exists on a continuum from a state of disease to optimal living, it is generally understood as an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a more successful existence. It involves self-responsibility, the desire to maintain balance, and the ability to resource energy required for appropriate tasks. Wellness is not a place where one arrives but rather a constantly evolving state of positive well-being. Ultimately, to be well implies functioning at a level oriented toward maximizing the potential of which an individual is capable—a state often associated with life satisfaction.
Although conceptions of wellness vary, the differences are slight. Wellness can be best understood as a multidimensional model that includes both internal and external sources of influence. Internal sources are connected to the individual and include social, emotional, intellectual, psychological, physical, and spiritual dimensions. External sources are connected to the environment and include things like government, family, school, career, culture, as well air and water. Internal sources can be understood as a circular and interactive model (often called the wellness wheel), in which no dimension is of greater importance than another. Thus, the internal dimensions share properties of being independent and interdependent in nature; that is, movement in each dimension has an effect on other dimensions, while also being affected by all other dimensions. These dimensions are not presented in hierarchical order, but rather as independent, equally important entities (see Figure 41.1).
Each dimension connected to an internal source falls within an individual’s internal locus of control (i.e., one can affect and ultimately control each dimension with proper skill development and effort), and is largely influenced by one’s perception (Adams, Bezner, & Stienhardt, 1997). People with a consistently high level of wellness often possess a high level of persistence and optimism. In contrast, the external sources (e.g., family, school, culture) are connected to an external locus of control (i.e., expectancy of control is outside of oneself, largely affected by fate or powerful people).
Dimensions of Wellness: Internal Sources
Six major dimensions compose internal sources of well-being: (1) social, (2) emotional, (3) intellectual, (4) psychological, (5) physical, and (6) spiritual. Social wellness refers to an individual perceiving support from key people in his or her life (e.g., family and friends) during difficult times, as well as the belief that he or she is able to provide support to others. More specifically, the dynamic between one’s health and social wellness is determined by one’s perception of social support, quality of support, gaining support from a person of choice (e.g., the need for a family member versus a friend, or a friend versus a family member), and developing reciprocal support systems. Broadly, social wellness generates the desire to contribute to the common welfare of one’s community by encouraging a healthy living environment and initiating joint communication; inspiring harmonious relationships within one’s family, friends, community, colleagues, and the world.
Figure 41.1 The Wellness Wheel
Emotional wellness highlights the importance of having awareness and acceptance of one’s feelings. It includes the ability to understand one’s limitations, deal effectively with stress, and maintain a sense of optimism during difficult times. To say that one is emotionally well implies that one has a positive internal image of one’s self (i.e., self-identity and self-esteem), and in turn, is willing to take on challenges and risks, seeing conflict as an opportunity for growth. Although each dimension of wellness is interdependent, emotional wellness is positively associated with physical self-esteem and physical activity (Adams, Bezner, & Stienhardt, 1995) and negatively associated with issues of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating (Adams, Bezner, & Stienhardt, 1997).
Despite apparent interchangeability, intellectual and psychological wellness carry distinct meanings. Intellectual wellness refers to actively embracing opportunities for creative and stimulating thinking and learning. It encourages people to move beyond a feeling of self-satisfaction toward activities that will expand one’s knowledge and potential. An intellectually well person exhibits curiosity about life (e.g., reading books, magazines, and newspapers; engaging in cultural activities), and has the desire to share his or her knowledge with others. Psychological wellness, on the other hand, is connected to the filter through which one sees the world. It is the perception that life will always work out in a positive manner—regardless of the situation at hand. Psychological wellness, also referred to as optimism, is often associated with hardiness and increases in self-esteem and general well-being. The Chinese proverb, “where the mind goes, the body follows,” expresses this dimension of wellness most accurately; people who are psychologically well are the least likely to become ill, even when operating under high levels of stress (Sergerstrom & Miller, 2004).
Physical wellness provides almost immediate benefits that trickle into the psychological dimension of wellness; one develops a more vigorous and dynamic body and feels terrific, which can lead to the psychological benefits of increased self-esteem, self-control, and a sense of direction. Although maintenance and prevention concerning physical health is important, true physical wellness facilitates a proactive approach to health in which one strives for constant improvement in cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and muscular strength through regular physical activity. This can be achieved through anything from sports (school, club, or recreational) and personal environment fitness activities (e.g., aerobics, weight training, rollerblading, hiking), to general physical activity (e.g., yard work, leisure walking, pick up sports activities with friends). Being physically well also includes making healthy food choices on a regular basis—a behavior sometimes difficult to accomplish with nutrition recommendations changing on a regular basis. For example, “My Pyramid Plan,” provided through the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), is gaining national recognition as the standard for dietary guidelines, but does not incorporate headline news, such as the new recommendation to eat sustainable versus wild fish. Thus, making healthy food choices on a regular basis requires one to be aware of new information and be capable of discerning how to translate that information into action.
Spiritual wellness involves seeking meaning and purpose in life. It emphasizes the importance of having appreciation for the beauty of nature, the universe, and ultimately, something outside of one’s self. When one is on the path of nurturing one’s spiritual nature, questions such as, Who am I? and What is the meaning of my life? will emerge to guide one closer to a personal value system. The process of enhancing one’s spiritual well-being can come in many forms, such as religion, meditation, nature walks, and quietude. Spiritual wellness becomes clear when one’s actions become consistent with one’s beliefs and values— both of which inform one’s purpose in life. As with all dimensions of wellness, a strong association exists between spiritual wellness and positive health outcomes.
The Core of Wellness
The path of wellness is a deliberate process anchored by an individual’s core, or true self. The core, located in the center of the wellness wheel (see Figure 41.1), is associated with one’s spiritual wellness because it is one’s personal ethics, values, spirit, or true self. It affects and is affected by each dimension of the wellness wheel, for the betterment or detriment of one’s existence. Optimal human existence involves embracing and nurturing each dimension of wellness in a balanced fashion to maintain a healthy core. A common misconception, however, is that one must strive for balance as a starting point to greater wellness. As a result of this encompassing and largely conceptual goal, many people often become disenchanted and give up altogether. In contrast, it is important to find an entry point in one domain (e.g., emotional) with which you have a connection (e.g., “I would like to decrease my anger”) and gradually move your attention to the other domains over time. This approach will allow for small wins and eventually yield a lifestyle of increased awareness, personal growth, and balanced living.
Dimensions of Wellness: External Sources
Life optimization involves a commitment to the path of wellness from the inside out, while understanding the effects coming from the outside in (i.e., dimensions connected to external sources of well-being). The challenge arises in gaining clarity around the degree to which an individual can influence external sources. For example, an individual might be thrown out of balance by frustration with a decision made by his or her state government concerning an issue important to the individual. The first question for the individual to consider is, Did I have the opportunity to vote on the issue? If the answer is no, then the individual should understand that his or her ability to affect the decision is slight. If the answer is yes, then the next question is, Did I actually vote? If the answer is no, then the case is closed. The individual had the opportunity to make an impact on his or her external world, but did not take the action. If the individual did vote, then he or she will need to understand that voting is probably the final extent of his or her influence. Worrying about the issue is wasted energy because it is, in this case, based on a false sense of control—the very thing that can cause the individual to be in a state of disease. The same approach can be applied to any situation existing outside of an individual’s immediate control (e.g., a traffic jam, delayed airline flight, job layoff). Thus, learning how to identify and control the controllables (Janssen, 1996) is central to one’s overall well-being.
When an individual operates from the inside out, he or she will have greater ease in identifying the elements over which he or she has control or can affect and will focus on these elements only. For example, when an individual is physically active on a regular basis, he or she tends to have healthier psychological and emotional wellness, and greater energy for creative and intellectual endeavors. The attention and increased awareness within each domain allows the individual to integrate thoughts and greater understanding around his or her purpose in life. As a result, the individual may determine that his or her purpose is connected to making an impact, even if partial, on external sources affecting his or her well-being, such as the air and water in his or her community. The individual may develop a coalition to educate local citizens about methods for keeping the water and air safe and clean, in turn enhancing his or her social well-being.
Wellness and Youth: A Brief History
In 50 years, Americans’ conceptions of health and wellness have moved from fatalistic beliefs about the pre-eminence of biological explanations for illness to recognition of the key role of personal health decisions and behavior to prevent disease. Despite the positive shift in knowledge, concerns about the health of children and adolescents continue to make national headlines. Increases in stress, obesity, and type II diabetes, in conjunction with decreases in physical activity and proper nutrition, have created a need for immediate health interventions for children and adolescents.
Similar concerns about youth were expressed as long as 100 years ago. In 1898, Duckworth expressed disgust at the number of people who claim they do not have time for exercise. He asserted, “They gradually lose zest for what is so needful, so imperatively needful, if they are to maintain vigorous minds in vigorous bodies” (Duckworth, 1898, p. 5). An investigation of the Detroit public schools in 1914 “proved conclusively that the play of boys and girls has been on the decline. . . . Modern conditions have made people of all ages inactive. Under such conditions chronic disease is rapidly on the increase” (Pearl & Brown, 1927).
In 1898, people were pointing to advances in civilization, the high usage of omnibuses and tramcars, and the frequent attendance among young people at picture shows, as well as other nonactive forms of entertainment as reasons for declining health. The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle have prevailed. In 1979, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) reported that over half of the deaths in the United States were caused by lifestyle and self-destructive behavior. Although this information has been available for over 25 years, it has influenced individual’s attributional beliefs about others’ behavior more than it has changed individual’s own behavior. More specifically, the USPHS report highlighted the fact that children and adolescents are endangered primarily by their own behavior, thus asserting that prioritization of health promotion and prevention strategies is needed in order to improve their health and well-being. Today, physical inactivity among children and adults is still of primary concern. Too many hours watching television and sitting at a computer, along with the disappearance of physical education and increase in long workweeks, are just a few of the modern conditions that promote habitual inactivity.
Physical Wellness: A 21st-century Priority
Despite increasing knowledge about the effect of all domains of wellness on one’s overall health, Americans continue to focus solely on ways to improve physical wellness. Thus, most policy and programming efforts focus on this single dimension of wellness. Knowing what we know about the power of all aspects of wellness working together, it is no surprise that these policies and programs are not positively affecting physical well-being. Obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis are on the rise—all of which are now being diagnosed in children and adolescents. Further, the 21st-century approach of combating obesity among children and adults creates greater difficulty in gaining positive momentum due to simple semantics. The current approach tends to place people in a negative and defensive mode, with fear of failure at the forefront, rather than employing a prohealth and wellness approach to prompt positive action and the desire to be proactive. As a result, physical wellness continues to be a concern and will remain so until innovative programs and positive educational approaches are funded, implemented, and assessed, especially around the topic of obesity.
Obesity: Gaining Popularity
Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with more than 1 billion adults overweight—at least 300 million of them clinically obese—and is a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability. Often coexisting in developing countries with under-nutrition, obesity is a complex condition, with serious social and psychological dimensions, affecting virtually all ages and socioeconomic groups. (World Health Organization, 2007)
Although obesity is a global epidemic, it has also increased dramatically among Americans from 1987 to 2000. Nearly 59 million adults are obese, the percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled, and the percentage of adolescents tripled, since 1980. This is a disturbing increase. Obese children and adolescents who do not change their habits will remain overweight and obese in adulthood, resulting in increased risk for chronic diseases. Currently, chronic diseases are the leading cause of death among Americans and among the most costly health problems, but they are also among the most preventable. Adopting healthy behaviors such as eating nutritious foods, being physically active, and avoiding tobacco use can prevent or control the devastating effects of these diseases (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2004a). Lack of attention to weight, diet, and physical activity has serious economic costs as well. In 1997, the cost for diabetes was estimated to be $98 billion (Mokdad et al., 2001). The annual cost of obesity in the United States is about $117 billion (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2004b).
Many are attempting to make a change in their health status. In 2000, 38.5% of U.S. adults were trying to lose weight and 35.9% were trying to maintain weight. Of these adults, 72.9% reported changing diet and 59.5% reported increased physical activity. Unfortunately, few Americans who were trying to use diet and exercise to lose or maintain weight were following appropriate guidelines, such as eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily or meeting recommended levels of activity (i.e., 30 minutes of moderate activity—activity that keeps you breathing lightly to somewhat hard—5 times a week; Mokdad et al., 2001). In contrast, most reported weight loss attempts have been underscored by quick fix approaches that include prescription drugs (e.g., Alli, Lipovarin) and fad diets (e. g., Nutri-Slim, Atkins, South Beach), and exclude exercise. Numerous public health organizations (e.g., World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and so forth) have launched programs to educate communities about ways to combat the obesity epidemic in their own city, but few to date have successfully demonstrated positive long-term effects. In 2001 the National Institutes of Health (NIH)launched the largest NIH-funded effort on weight loss and the first study to examine long-term effects of weight loss and exercise in type 2 diabetes. Participants, who will be followed for up to 11.5 years, are expected to follow the NIH-Lifestyle Program, which includes intensive diet and exercise guidelines designed to help participants lose at least 7% to 10% of their initial weight in the first year of the study. But until the results are reported and additional studies are conducted, the jury is still out regarding dependent measures responsible for lasting changes affecting weight loss. Thus, the obesity epidemic continues to spread worldwide.
Physical Activity and Youth
Many youth do not engage in regular exercise. According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports report, Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls (Kane & Larkin, 1997), about 50% of youth fail to participate in regular physical activity. Particularly disturbing is that 14% of youth are totally inactive; and young females (aged 12 to 21) are twice as likely to be inactive as young males. Those who are physically active tend to do better in school, are less likely to drop out, are less depressed, have improved ability to regulate emotions, and higher self-esteem than youth who are not physically active. Studies have also shown that exercise can have powerful academic and maturational benefits for youth (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest, 1998); and for females, exercise positively addresses body image and related concerns (Kane & Larkin, 1997). Regular exercise and other wellness practices are not only instrumental in preventing or minimizing the effect of various illnesses, but also in maximizing creativity and optimism in one’s life.
Disappearance of Modern Physical Education Curricula
Once, physical education courses were a regular part of American education at all levels. Since 1950, there has been a gradual erosion of frequency and quality of physical education programs. Physical education programs disappeared from schools largely because of societal pressure to respond to various crises. For example, the Sputnik crisis in 1957 was met by challenging American students to become better in math and science. The apparent success of the Japanese economy in the 1980s was met with repeated cross-national comparisons of student achievement and increasing demands that our students do better in math and science. Today’s students are being asked to achieve new standards and higher goals (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Policy makers and business influences have successfully focused the American curriculum narrowly on subject matter outcomes. Time for academic learning is considered so important that in some schools principals have cancelled recess so students can spend more time preparing for tests.
Too often, students are represented solely by their academic achievements versus being understood more broadly as social beings (McCaslin, 1996). It is lamentable that physical education programs have essentially become squeezed out of public school curriculum priorities. Yet it is also important to recognize that the golden age of physical education never existed in terms of how such programs affected students’ decisions about wellness over a lifetime.
Current reductions in physical education programs run contrary to the goals of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Healthy People 2010 initiative. This report is a collection of nearly 300 national health promotion and disease prevention goals to be achieved by the year 2010. One main area of the initiative is the relationship between quality school physical education and healthy students. Three of the health objectives focused on school-based physical education are
- Objective 22.8 Increase the proportion of the nation’s public and private schools that require daily physical education.
- Objective 22.9 Increase the proportion of adolescents who participate in daily physical activity.
- Objective 22.10 Increase the proportion of adolescents who spend at least 50% of school physical education class time being physically active.
The objectives will likely not be achieved, however. Nationwide, the percentage of students who attended a daily physical education class has dropped from 42% in 1991 to 28% in 2003 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004). Only 8% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle school and junior high schools, and 5.8% of senior high schools provide daily physical education or its equivalent (i.e., 150 minutes per week for elementary schools; 225 minutes per week for middle schools, junior high schools, and senior high schools) for the entire school year for students in all grades in the school (Burgeson, Wechsler, Brener, Young, & Spain, 2001). Even when students are participating in physical education, the benefits are in question (e.g., What percent of class time are students actually participating in consistent physical activity? Are students learning about bats, balls, and bases or, rather, how to make fitness a lifetime activity?). Further, 80% of states and 83% of all school districts excuse students from required participation in physical education for various reasons (Allensworth, Lawson, Nicholson, & Wyche, 1997, p. 85). Even if 100% of students participated in physical education, schools would still fall short of providing adequate time allocated for physical activity. This is especially disconcerting given the following recommendation of the American Heart Association:
All children age 2 and older participate in at least 30 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity activities every day [italics added for emphasis]. They should also perform at least 30 minutes of vigorous [breathing somewhat hard to hard] physical activities at least 3-4 days each week to achieve and maintain a good level of cardiorespiratory (heart and lung) fitness. (American Heart Association, 2007)
Reviving Physical Education With Wellness Education: Program Overview
Partial features of wellness models are prevalent in schools. Stress management and life-skills components are generally found within wellness programs. Components often exist independently and in afterschool programs, in the absence of a comprehensive wellness curriculum. Typically schools will adopt only one of these wellness strategies, if any. For example, stress management programs have only been operating as an ad hoc option of the school curricula. Some of the skills being taught (e.g., biofeedback, diaphragmatic breathing, muscle relaxation training, and imagery and visualization exercises), however, could have a greater effect if integrated into existing school curricula.
While many would agree that stress management education is beneficial, many also agree that allocating time in the school curriculum for stress management class is challenging. Yet, a few life-skills programs have received space within the curriculum structure (see Gilbert & Orlick, 1996). The root of life-skills programs lies in mental training techniques used by successful athletes. These include, but are not limited to, goal setting, relaxation and energizing techniques, imagery training for performance enhancement and personal development, concentration and attention control strategies, how to effectively cope with stressors, learning to highlight positive experiences, and how to reach peak performance. Maintaining a positive perspective in life, effectively coping with stress, and learning to relax have all been correlated with successful performance. Thus, proponents of teaching mental training to children and adolescents feel the benefits will enhance their quality of life and provide them with increased clarity surrounding their life purpose.
To reiterate, wellness education incorporates stress management and some components of life-skills, and also includes a greater emphasis on physical activity, nutrition, spirituality, and self-care. Businesses, organizations, churches, and community groups are beginning to develop programs to educate youth about the importance of being well and incorporating physical activity and healthy food choices in hopes of eliciting positive behavioral change. But programs are still falling short and educational reform efforts are generally replete with inadequate conceptualization, implementation, and poor results.
Future Direction in Wellness Programming: A Co-Regulated Experience
Taking responsibility for one’s health and well-being is a key element that distinguishes wellness programs. Peter Vidmar (1991), an Olympic athlete and member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, is among the very few who highlight the need for youth to develop lifelong healthy habits in order to create long-term commitments to physical activity. Lifetime commitment to physical activity is a continuing challenge for youth: as age increases participation decreases. Although some policy makers, administrators, and teachers call for greater adherence to physical exercise among youth, most programs have failed to make a difference. The element largely neglected in physical education programs, the National Standards for Physical Education, and related research is the integration of mental training with physical training, or mind-and-body education. “There is an alarming apathy toward sustained physical well-being among the general population, and a corresponding ignorance of the mental relationship to the body,” (Hickman, Murphy, & Spino, 1977). Unfortunately, very few elementary or secondary school physical education programs include mental skills and strategies (i.e., psychological wellness) to promote long-term commitment to participation and overall wellness.
In order to facilitate a lifelong commitment to wellness, programs need to include elements of self-regulation— understanding how an individual coordinates relatively long-term patterns of goal-directed behavior—to enable individuals to successfully regulate the whole self. Given the combination of internal and external sources affecting overall wellness, successful wellness programs must also include an understanding about individuals’ needs within the context of their environment. As schools begin to renew their approach to physical education, special attention must be given to developing programs that contain authoritative knowledge and provide for challenging but manageable activities, while also helping students to maintain their involvement over time through co-regulation (McCaslin & Good, 1996).
The Co-Regulated Experience
Students do not learn alone. Students and their teachers, peers, parents, counselors, and the school context mutually exert a powerful influence on learning. Although the ultimate goal of education is often to create student self-regulation (see McCaslin & Good, 1998), it is preceded by a healthy student-teacher relationship, or co-regulation. McCaslin and Good (1996) present a model of co-regulation in which “teachers, through their relationships with students and the opportunities they provide them, support and ‘scaffold’ adaptive student learning” (p. 2). Specifically, the model embraces three domains of learning—motivation, enactment, and evaluation. Motivation, referred to as reality contact, is centered around knowledge of one’s self and one’s goals. It affords the questions, Where am I now? Where do I want to go (choice)? How hard will I have to work? and What are my motives (intrinsic, extrinsic, or both)? Enactment is concerned with protecting the self once the directional choice has been made (goal selected). Thus, elements of control enter the enactment domain and include “control over the self and control over the persons (e.g., teachers, peers) and physical resources of the classroom” (McCaslin & Good, 1996, p. 9). Once a choice has been made in the motivational stage, enactment ensures follow through and goals are reached. Evaluation is the third phase of the co-regulated learning model. This provides the opportunity for evaluating one’s self after completing a task (reaching a goal) or during the task (if the opportunity exists). “Opportunity for evaluation includes tasks that consist of sub-goals or other markers of understandings-in-part or incomplete learning. Opportunity also includes time, because evaluation takes time” (McCaslin & Good, 1996, p. 14). The evaluative process can be carefully facilitated by the teacher (or the counselor or parent) to educate the student how to self-evaluate without comparison to other students and focus on a realistic appraisal about progress.
Development of a program founded on co-regulation strategies will become central to the successful revival of physical education in the 21st century. Teachers, administrators, and parents are already beginning to discuss how they can create a new model of physical education. This new model will require the immersion of teachers, counselors, parents, and peers within the school context to aid in individual student motivation and enactment in striving to enhance one’s well-being. As viewed by McCaslin and Good (1996):
Constellation of context, self, and other in students’ setting, pursuit, and coordination of their goals, then, is what we mean by student motivation. We do not consider motivation a personal variable, one that resides only in the student. Nor do we look solely to the environment. In our conception, motivation is a shared, co-regulated variable which emerges through the integration of the student with the personal and task resources within the context of the classroom. Students clearly bring more than their physical selves to this formulation. (p. 9)
The co-regulation strategies presented by McCaslin and Good lend support for seeing students as social, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual beings existing within a physical self. The aim will be to tap into each of these elements through greater awareness of the physical self and to stimulate growth toward self-regulation in all areas.
Wellness Programming and Co-Regulation in Action
Kientzler (2004) pioneered a new model of physical education through the development, implementation, and assessment of a wellness curriculum designed for high school freshmen. Founded on the model of co-regulation, the curriculum, titled Reach Your Peak: Maximizing Potential Through Physical Wellness©, places emphasis on education about one’s physical wellness (i.e., overall fitness and health), yet provides comprehensive experiential opportunities (e.g., biofeedback training, African drumming, weekend hikes, meditation, journal writing, field trips to grocery stores and health resorts) for students to gain understanding about the independent and interdependent nature of all domains of one’s wellness. According to Nichols & Good (2004), “Comprehensive programs have considerably stronger potential to reduce harmful habits and to lay a foundation for happy living [a key component of the Reach Your Peak program] than programs that view youth in terms of their separate identities (smokers, cheaters, overweight student, etc.)” (p. 162). Curriculum implementation took place 4 days per week—75 minutes, 3 days per week and 120 minutes, 1 day per week—for a total of 15 weeks. Thus, importance was placed on the value of this curriculum from the start by allocating the same amount of time as that provided to math, science, and language arts instruction within the high school where it was implemented.
One major curriculum goal of the Reach Your Peak program was to elicit positive behavioral changes and increased cognitive awareness of one’s physical self through coursework on how to take responsibility for one’s well-being. Coursework emphasized co-regulated learning. That is, teachers, counselors, parents, and peers were integrated to support each participant in his or her pursuit toward a greater personal well-being. The comprehensive nature of the curriculum recognizes that students are social beings who need a co-regulated (McCaslin & Good, 1996) environment (i.e., social support) to develop personal responsibility for their health and wellness, and to find activities enjoyable and meaningful. The Reach Your Peak program is one attempt to provide a supportive environment through which adolescents find their motivation to be well, to move from a mindset of prevention and maintenance concerning their health toward a proactive and future-oriented presence of mind—one in which they are inspired to reach their fullest potential (see Kientzler, 2004 for program details).
Reach Your Peak was successful on many levels. Implemented as a quasi-experimental research design with nonequivalent groups (treatment and comparison), the program was assessed via pre- and posttest responses across numerous measures (e.g., Perceived Wellness Survey, Self-Description Questionnaire, Physical Self-Description Questionnaire, Nutrition Knowledge Assessment, multiple physiological variables, among others). Results indicated significant differences at posttest between the treatment (i.e., students enrolled in Reach Your Peak) and comparison groups in important ways. For example, the treatment group demonstrated a significant increase in physical activity levels, cardiorespiratory fitness (VO2), and a significant decrease in blood pressure, ambient heart rate, body fat, and LDL cholesterol (the latter of which requires a lower score to be healthy). The comparison group reported a significant decrease in physical activity and demonstrated a significant increase in body fat and LDL cholesterol, while their cardiorespiratory fitness remained constant. Additionally, the students in the treatment group demonstrated a significant increase in attendance across all classes in both the fall and spring semesters, and the comparison group’s attendance decreased. Significant increases in confidence pertaining to sport competence (i.e., knowing what to do, how to do it, and the perception that others believe they know what to do and how to do it) were demonstrated by the treatment group, but the comparison group lost confidence.
Positive transformations in and between each dimension of wellness were also reported by students enrolled in Reach Your Peak through journal writing, individual meetings with the teacher, group discussions, assignments, and the final exam. All students made connections between each dimension of their well-being and many other areas of their lives. Students understood the connection between their mind and body. “Improving my physical wellness has given me the confidence to attack other obstacles I have in life,” reported one male student. Students made connections between their physical wellness and their social well-being. “If you focus on keeping yourself healthy and well, it will affect all areas of your life. If you eat healthy and exercise, you will feel better and therefore make your mind feel better. When you’re happy, you’ll make new friends and your social life will be boosted,” stated one female student. Awareness of emotions and positive methods of dealing with them are crucial to healthy adolescent development. A female student realized an increased feeling of well-being through expressing herself, “I have changed because I now see that we control our emotions with what we think and how we act. An emotionally strong person isn’t just someone who never cries, but it is someone who was given an emotional obsticle [sic] and they know how to deal with it.” And even connections between physical and spiritual wellness were reported, as one male shared, “I have found the importance of having something/ someone as a spiritual significance. I also felt how to connect with the spiritual aspect of my life while doing physical activity.” When asked to share three things they would take with them from the course (during the final week), student responses were balanced across wellness dimensions and included a broad spectrum of positive lessons. The top responses on behalf of females included increased confidence, knowing how to work out, relaxation techniques, nutrition habits, and mental training techniques. For males, responses included nutrition habits, positive thinking, knowing how to work out, improved relationships, and physical fitness.
Results from the Reach Your Peak program assessment are important; significant changes in fitness and wellness among youth over a 15-week period are powerful. But these changes were witnessed at one level—a single class at a single high school. Results from the study have the potential to contribute to multiple schools, and multiple school districts, as well as inform policy makers, parents, and young people themselves. Unfortunately, insights about how to make exercise more attractive to students have come at a time when there is little structural support for providing students with state-of-the-art information about health, fitness, and nutrition. As noted earlier, traditional physical education has disappeared from many American schools; and the many benefits of wellness education programs are still not fully recognized by decision makers in education. Allocating time to include wellness in education is inadequate.
The challenge wellness education has faced in gaining enough credibility to be granted a full-time spot within national curriculum standards is rooted in history. In the 1914 issue of the American Physical Education Review (APER), C. F. Weege argued that physical training not only promotes the development of students’ physical, mental, and moral capacities, but also “furnishes situations in the gymnasium that put the tools of mind to a trial and the pupil, by mastering these situations, sharpens his mind and becomes more deliberate, more persevering, and gains more-self-control” (pp. 513-514). Fifteen years later, the 1929 issue of APER discussed the need for society to realize that leisure time and physical play are a necessity for health and promoting a well-balanced life, for they have many physical and mental benefits (Richards, 1929). It appears that educators have been trying to gain credibility for a holistic approach to education for some time.
The valuation of wellness education—teaching youth how to reach their optimal human potential—has made progress since the early 1900s, but it has not been accepted nationwide. The need for greater involvement by the national government cannot be underestimated in achieving further acceptance. If all government efforts to improve the health and well-being of our nation’s youth were directed in a more holistic manner (wellness programming) and mandated as part of national curriculum standards, perhaps the health of America’s youth would change.
Colleges and universities could also play a role in promoting wellness education in elementary and secondary schools. If higher education institutions required a specific number of wellness curriculum credits, just as in mathematics, science, and language, perhaps elementary and secondary schools would develop comprehensive wellness courses to prepare students to meet the requirements. Students would learn to value their health and wellness simply by the message that colleges and universities value it by requiring credits for acceptance. Presently, lack of value is conveyed to students via the “null curriculum”; that is, what is not being taught is not important (Eisner, 1992).
It will take time to expose all U.S. citizens to quality wellness programs. Given the opportunity, youth reared in healthier school environments will become the leaders of our country in business, schools, communities, and government. They in turn will promote change within institutions and communities toward a greater respect for prioritizing wellness and the desire to maximize one’s potential.
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