The Importance of Health Literacy in Physical Education

Understanding personal health and the role of physical health in the quality and length of life starts at a young age. Physical education programs are a great space to help young people learn to care for themselves and their bodies physically, mentally and emotionally.

The Eastern Washington University (EWU) online Master of Education (M.Ed.) – Health and Physical Education program prepares graduates for physical education careers where they can promote health literacy among youth and establish a foundation for long-term wellness.

Why is Health Literacy Important?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), personal health literacy is “the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”

Health literacy is an important skill set because it allows individuals to actively participate in their healthcare, develop and sustain healthy habits, and communicate their needs and concerns to health professionals. However, most adults lack this knowledge. The American Physical Therapy Association reports that 88% of U.S. adults face health literacy challenges, placing them at greater risk for misunderstanding health information. This can lead to difficulty following medical instructions and implementing recommended personal wellness practices.

Health literacy is also a fundamental aspect of public health initiatives. The CDC’s definition reflects the need to communicate health information in a way that patients can readily apply to their lives. Individuals must have the capacity to seek out and comprehend health-related materials, navigate healthcare systems, select appropriate healthcare services and critically evaluate health information from various sources.

Health Literacy in Schools

Establishing lifelong health and wellness habits begins in childhood, and physical education professionals are instrumental in promoting these concepts among students. The CDC has developed resources for schools and physical education teachers to incorporate into curricula, including health literacy topics.

Lessons are available for preschool-aged children through college students and reinforce the importance of health literacy and healthy living. Through lesson plans, book clubs, demonstration videos and student activities, physical education teachers can share age-appropriate health and wellness information with students.

Some of the CDC-recommended topics that physical education teachers can focus on include:

  • Sun safety and skin cancer
  • Environmental health and climate change
  • Healthy living habits and diabetes prevention
  • Health information literacy skills
  • Lead poisoning
  • Attending college
  • Public health and epidemiology careers
  • Making independent health decisions
  • Identifying reputable, high-quality health information sources

Why Does Physical Education Matter?

Physical education instructors offer the first formal introduction to health literacy for many students and lay the groundwork for developing students’ healthy habits. The CDC notes that students who participate in physical education are generally more active, have greater concentration in the classroom and perform better academically. Increased physical activity may reduce students’ risk of obesity and related diseases and boost their mood and self-image.

Physical education teachers empower individuals from a young age to take good care of themselves and make appropriate health choices. Their lesson plans encourage team building, cooperation and motor skill development.

By establishing a range of health literacy skills, educators ensure students can make informed decisions about food and exercise, advocate for themselves and interact with care providers. In addition, students’ growing health literacy knowledge will help them maintain good hygiene and safety habits, like brushing their teeth and wearing a seatbelt. It can also deter them from engaging in harmful or dangerous behaviors, such as smoking, vaping or drug use.

Although physical fitness and increased activity are central to physical education initiatives, educators who integrate health literacy can align with the broader goal of promoting overall well-being among students. EWU’s online M.Ed. – Health and Physical Education program equips educators with the skills to pursue physical education careers and foster health literacy among today’s youth.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s online M.Ed. – Health and Physical Education program.

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