Araham Lincoln once said that, “the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Indeed what school children think today, the nation thinks tomorrow.

Schools not only offer wonderful opportunities for learning and thriving, they are also uniquely positioned to give children and adolescents a healthy start in life to enable them to fulfill their potential and succeed. This is of critical importance today because of increasing and early onset of health problems related to obesity, unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyle, the use of tobacco and alcohol and mental stress.

Why do schools need to actively promote healthy living?  The short answer: health and education are inextricably linked. Healthy children are more active. They are better learners. They are less likely to be absent or have behavioural issues. All these typically lead to better scores and better academic performance overall. Children with healthy habits are also more likely to grow into healthy and productive adults, and less at risk of developing chronic noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, chronic lung disease and cancer during the life course. Parents play a critical role in inculcating good habits. But children spend a major chunk of their day at school and teachers and school managements need to step up to the plate.

Schools, wherever they are, can act in tangible ways – school cafeterias, for example, should offer more fruits and vegetables and less fried, sugar-rich, salty food and sugary drinks. Schools should also mandate a certain amount of physical activity for every student. Additionally, schools must ensure access to safe drinking water and clean toilets for boys and girls. Children need to be encouraged to brush their teeth at least twice a day with flouridated toothpaste, to prevent dental caries. Not all schools have big playgrounds and not all offer meals but creative improvisations can be managed if wellness committees are instituted in schools with parents as members.

Why are all these things so important?  Children who grow up on an unhealthy diet – too little of fresh fruits and vegetables, too much of processed food, salt, sugar, saturated fats and trans-fats (bad fats)-, are at risk of severe ailments. For example, too much salt in the food can lead to raised blood pressure and a number of conditions, such as heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis and stomach cancer at a later stage. Too much sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, can lead to tooth decay and obesity.

School authorities therefore must promote healthy meals. In addition, every child needs to spend sufficient time in the day doing some form of physical activity. Often, parents and schools emphasise too much on academic scores at the expense of physical activity. Combined with unhealthy eating, lack of sufficient physical activity is leading to rising childhood obesity around the world. WHO recommends that healthy children and adolescents between 5 and 17 years should spend at least 60 minutes in moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily. It can be swimming, running, cycling, or any form of sports.

This is not all. School children today are severely impacted by peer pressure and advertisements.  The two areas where schools need to intervene urgently are tobacco and harmful use of alcohol. There is evidence that the use of tobacco (smoked and chewed and alcohol consumption is increasing among adolescents and youth). Tobacco use is the single most important risk factor for NCDs. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals and chemical compounds, many of which are toxic. School authorities and parents need to advocate enforcing a ban on the sale of tobacco products to children and adolescents. Teachers can also make help parents and other adults understand that it is not only smokers who are at risk. Those exposed to second hand smoke are also at risk. Alcohol too has an addictive potential. Research shows that earlier initiation into alcohol consumption increases the chances of alcohol dependency in later life. Teachers in partnership with parents can make children aware that alcohol consumption at this stage can affect and even impair brain development and have other consequences such as loss of control and risky behaviour, leading to injuries, accidents and even violence.

The World Health Organization is working with partners to promote health in schools and has come out with Laying the Foundation for Healthy Living – A Guidebook for Teachers and Schools, which lists some of the simple things that schools can do. These are recommendations, which can be adapted by individual schools to suit their specific contexts.

The key issue is action. Habits are formed early in life. Once they are established, they are difficult to change. Many of the chronic noncommunicable diseases that manifest in adults have their roots in unhealthy habits formed during childhood and adolescence – the school years. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see…” Schools can be catalysts for change.”

Contributed by Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh

Regional Director 

WHO South-East Asia