Health habits are associated with the safety, health and quality of life of youth and their families, but also with student academic achievement. In this article I will explain the relationship between health behaviors and academic success, what specific health habits are linked to school outcomes, and what schools and parents can do to improve the chances their children, adolescents and young adults will achieve academic success.

 Relationship Between Health and Academics

The relationship between health behaviors and academic achievement is a negative association, according to National Youth Risk Behavior Survey data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. Specifically, youth engaged in risky health habits are more likely to receive lower grades, while students with higher grades are less likely to engage in health-damaging habits. While this association does not prove that risky habits cause lower grades, the fact is they are significantly related.

One implication of the link between health habits and school outcomes is that schools and families should be focused on developing “whole youth.” By having teens focus on just their academic habits, or just a narrow range of health behaviors, misses critical opportunities to help develop well rounded youth.

It also deprives young people of experiencing stronger positive academic and health outcomes resulting from the synergistic interaction of academic and health behaviors. By not addressing one or the other key components of youth development, we risk preventing adolescents from reaching their optimal potential academically, physically, mentally and even spiritually.

 Specific Health Habits Linked to Academic Achievement

According to CDC, the following eight health behaviors are negatively associated with academic success: 1) alcohol use, 2) drug use, 3) tobacco use, 4) physical inactivity, 5) unhealthy eating, 6) lack of sleep, 7) sexual risk habits, and 8) unintentional and violence-related behaviors. In particular, youth engaged in each of these habits are less likely to earn high grades and more likely to earn low and failing grades.

For example, among U.S. high school students with grades of mostly D’s and F’s:

  •        77% had less than 8 hours of sleep each school night
  •        76% were not physically active 60 minutes a day, 5 or more days a week
  •        69% had sexual intercourse
  •        66% used marijuana
  •        62% currently drank alcohol
  •        58% were in a physical fight
  •        52% currently used tobacco

By comparison, among students with mostly A’s:

  •        66% had less than 8 hours of sleep each school night
  •        56% were not physically active 60 minutes a day, 5 or more days a week
  •        32% had sexual intercourse
  •        21% used marijuana
  •        32% currently drank alcohol
  •        19% were in a physical fight
  •        16% currently used tobacco

These data show that among American youth with low and failing grades, the majority are engaged in at least seven unhealthy behaviors, ranging from not getting adequate sleep and physical activity, to engaging in sexual intercourse, violence, and marijuana, alcohol and tobacco use. On the other hand, significantly fewer students with top grades are engaged in these risk habits.

What Can Schools and Parents Do?

What can schools do to increase the likelihood that adolescents will be academically successful? In addition to helping them develop good learning and study skills, part of the solution is to motivate youth to participate in healthy habits that support learning such as regular physical activity, healthy eating and sleep, while avoiding risk habits that interfere with academic success like alcohol, tobacco and drug use. This means schools, in collaboration with their community and business partners, need to provide evidence-based programs and policies which promote healthy lifestyles targeting multiple health behavior enhancement.

What can parents do? They can encourage and support their schools to include wellness and prevention programs at their adolescents’ schools, along with ensuring our schools are providing students with academic, emotional and social skills needed for youth to be engaged and successful in school.

Parents should also provide brief, positive comments to their youth illustrating how specific healthy habits are linked to school success, positive image attainment, and feeling good about themselves, as well as how health-damaging habits interfere with experiencing positive school and image attainment. In addition, parents should encourage their teens’ to regularly set and monitor multiple, concrete school and health behavior goals to achieve habits that will help them realize and attain desired future selves.


Developing healthy habits positively influence and support academic achievement among children, adolescents and young adults. Schools and parents each have an important role in ensuring the development of whole youth who are academically engaged and successful, and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

These efforts cannot be narrowly defined. Rather, together we must help motivate young people by showing them that positive academic and health behaviors and images are critical values worth setting goals to achieve, and in doing so result in living successful, healthy and happy lives.

To learn about an innovative, evidence-based positive youth development program created to prevent alcohol, tobacco and drug use, while increasing physical activity, healthy eating, and sleep among adolescents titled SPORT, go to: www.briefhealthprograms.com. At this site you can also read aboutInShape, an evidence-based positive development program targeting multiple health behaviors and positive images for college aged young adults.


Health & Academics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 31, 2012.http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/.

Health & Academics. Data & Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 31, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/data.htm

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