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Worrying Trends in Health & Wellbeing Among Children

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Health and wellbeing among children in many developed nations is showing some very concerning trends. In this blog post, I explore why this is and what evidence-based solutions are emerging in the research with a special lens on outdoor education.

The Facts & Figures

  • 1 in 3 10-11 year olds are obese or overweight in England according to recent research (NCMP England, 2012-13).

  • 1 in 10 school pupils (5-16 years) suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder in England and half of all mental illnesses start by the age of 14. (Public Health England, 2015).

  • In the US, youth mental health among school children is worsening. Rates of youth with severe depression increased from 5.9% in 2012 to 8.2% in 2015 (The State of Mental Health in America, 2018).

Is Youth Health & Wellbeing Getting Worse?

The prevalence and apparent worsening of youth health and wellbeing is a complex, multi-faceted issue. From a research perspective, one reason is due to improved understanding among healthcare professions and the public on issues like mental health in recent decades. While this is great news, when looking at the long-term picture, it does make it difficult to tease out reliable trends from longitudinal studies. And while there's still a long way to go, the reporting and diagnosis of youth health conditions, especially mental health problems, is almost certainly more widespread and reliable now than it has ever been.

So is children's health and wellbeing getting worse, or are we just getting better at recognizing the signs and symptoms of ill health and seeking more medical help from professionals? In the US, research documenting the emergence of the obesity epidemic has found that rising body mass indexes and obesity prevalence first occurred in the 1990s (particularly among adolescents and somewhat among children) (Lee et al., 2010, 2011) and has since continued. In Add Health, a longitudinal study, obesity rates more than tripled from 11 percent in adolescents in 1995 to 37 percent by young adulthood in 2008 (Harris, 2010). This worsening trend is also similar in mental health. Along with substance use, mental health disorders are now the greatest source of disability among young adults in the US (Institute of Medicine (US), 2015).

What Can We Do?

Physical activity is quite literally a 'miracle cure' and learning outside the classroom is a big driver for getting children moving and exercising (Royal College of Physicians, 2012). A wealth of research shows the beneficial effects of learning outdoors on health and wellbeing. In a classroom environment, many direct experiences are simply not possible because young people need different spaces and activities to help them learn through a hands-on approach. Learning outside the classroom in non-formal settings can help children to experience and understand their emotions, learn how to operate successfully with other children and with adults, see the potential for experiencing calm and relaxation through focused reflection, take control of what they eat, release energy and increase fitness through physical activity.

In the UK, research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows that there is substantial evidence to show that outdoor education programs can impact positively on young people’s attitudes, beliefs and self-perceptions. Examples of outcomes include improved independence, confidence, self-esteem, locus of control, self-efficacy, personal effectiveness and coping strategies. It can also help with interpersonal and social skills, such as social effectiveness, communication skills, group cohesion and teamwork.

Key Conclusions

There is now overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that mental health and obesity can be improved significantly by getting young people outside the classroom to learn (new knowledge and emotional skills) and increase physical exercise. This must become a high priority, if we are to commit to reversing the trend and making much needed gains in the health and wellbeing of our children.

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References(in order of appearance in text)

NCMP, England 2012-13 - National Childhood Measurement Programme - England 2012-13. Available at (lass accessed 03/09/2018)

Public Health England, 2015 - Improving young people’s health and wellbeing: a framework for public health. Public Health England and Association for Young People’s Health 2015. Available in PDF at (lass accessed 03/09/2018)

State of Mental Health in America, 2018 - State of Mental Health in America, 2018. Mental Health America. Statistics and key findings available at (lass accessed 03/09/2018)

Lee et al., 2010 - Lee JM, Pilli S, Gebremariam A, Keirns CC, Davis MM, Vijan S, Freed GL, Herman WH, Gurney JG. Getting heavier, younger: Trajectories of obesity over the life course. International Journal of Obesity. 2010;34(4):614–623.

Lee et al., 2011 - Lee H, Lee D, Guo G, Harris KM. Trends in body mass index in adolescence and young adulthood in the United States: 1959-2002. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2011;49(6):601–608.

Harris, 2010 - Harris KM. An integrative approach to health. Demography. 2010;47(1):1–22.

Davis, 2013 - Davis M. Young adult mental health. Presentation at IOM/NRC Workshop on Improving the Health, Safety, and Well-Being of Young Adults. Washington, DC. 2013.

Institute of Medicine, 2015 - Committee on Improving the Health, Safety, and Well-Being of Young Adults; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Bonnie RJ, Stroud C, Breiner H, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Jan 27.

Royal College of Physicians, 2012 - Royal College of Physicians. Exercise for life: physical activity in health and disease. London: RCP, 2012. Available in PDF at (lass accessed 03/09/2018)

National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), UK. Go to (lass accessed 03/09/2018)

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