Why is Linking Health Behaviors Important?

Helping children, adolescents and young adults understand how health risk behaviors and health enhancing behaviors influence each other is critical to them making effective decisions for enhancing their whole health. In particular, youth need to know how substance abuse and health promoting habits affect each other to either enhance or interfere with their physical and mental health, perceived self-image, and achieving important life goals.

In the past, health behaviors were viewed as being largely independent of each other. We now know that it is more common for youth to experience a number of co-existing unhealthy behaviors rather than a single behavior problem. These co-occurring behaviors influence each other both directly, as well as indirectly through common underlying risk and protective factors such as self-image and self-regulation skills.

The prevalent myth that young people experience only one risk behavior or a small number of related problems is not only inaccurate, but leads to the mistaken assumption that teachers and parents should help youth address only one health problem at a time. Instead, integrated interventions and health communication for our youth are likely to produce synergistic benefits from bundling multiple correlated behaviors.

Effective prevention programs should therefore help young people identify how multiple areas of their lives interconnect to influence their future health, well-being and happiness. Below we provide some tips for teachers and parents on how to communicate with youth to help them make the connection between substance abuse and healthy behaviors leading to broader health improvement and positive youth development.

Alcohol Abuse and Physical Activity: An Example

To better understand how to communicate the association between substance abuse and healthy habits, let’s look at a concrete example. Physical inactivity and alcohol consumption are two of the most prevalent health damaging habits youth experience. Here is a three-step approach to communicate the connection between alcohol abuse and physical activity to youth in school and at home.

Step one, convey to young people that being physically active has an overall positive influence on how we look, feel and think about ourselves. In doing so, we will trigger positive images youth have of their peers and desired self-images associated with engaging in regular physical activity.

For example, we could talk with youth about how participating in regular physical activity and sports improves one’s level of fitness, strength, stamina, and muscle tone. Regular exercise, even getting a small amount of physical activity like walking for 30 minutes, will help you look and feel more active and alive, increase your self-confidence, reduce your stress, and give you extra energy to succeed in school, work and play. By living an active lifestyle, you are less likely to participate in unhealthy habits that will harm your goals to be fit and healthy.

Step two, communicate that alcohol use, particularly regular or heavy use, will have a negative influence on youth who want to live a physically active lifestyle. So for example, tell young people that drinking is associated with a range of negative outcomes that interfere with being active and fit, such as feeling lethargic, weak, uncoordinated, bloated, and tired.

Alcohol provides little nutritional value, and because of its high caloric content can lead to weight gain. These effects can harm one’s motivation and ability to participate in regular physical activity, achieve personal fitness goals, and successfully compete in sports, physical activities and life.

Step three, connect alcohol abuse and physical in a recommendation. Advise young people that by choosing to include physical activity in their daily routine, along with avoiding drinking, they’ve made a choice to live an active, fit and high-energy lifestyle.

More Tips for Teachers and Parents to Help Their Youth Connect Substance Abuse with Healthy Habits:

1) Praise youth whenever and as soon as you see them exercise or engage in other healthy habits, like eating healthy or getting adequate sleep.

2) Trigger positive images and connect them to young people’s physical activity or other healthy behaviors. For example, “You are looking really fit and athletic, is that because you’re playing basketball every week?” or “Your playing basketball every week is making you look really fit and athletic.”

3) Ask youth what positive benefits they like most from participating in exercise or other healthy habits.

4) Ask young people to make a list of characteristics of youth their age who regularly exercise or engage in other specific health habits.

5) Ask youth what they would look and feel like if they regularly engaged in physical activity or other specific healthy habits 10 years from now.

6) Then, ask them what habits would interfere with them achieving these positive images and outcomes in the future.

7) Ask young people which specific habits of theirs will promote and which ones will prevent them from looking and feeling better in the future.

8) Have youth write down one healthy behavior they would like to increase and one risky behavior they would like to continue to avoid or reduce over the next month to look and feel better.

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