Many schools are either moving away from or abandoning health and physical education programs. That’s a bad move—a very bad move.

Some states allow students the option of skipping physical education classes, provided they participate in a sport or prove they perform a physical activity on their own time. Many schools that do teach physical education do so around a sports-based model, as opposed to focusing on physical fitness.

With high levels of stress, anxiety, and obesity in the United States, it is imperative to teach adolescents the positives of a healthy and active lifestyle. High school principals and teachers play a critical role in educating adolescents about their health, safety, and physical wellness—but how is that most effectively done?

By instituting a well-rounded, comprehensive program that includes a health curriculum, schools can provide students with the knowledge and decision-making skills necessary to promote lifetime wellness. Through such programs, students reap the benefits of learning about strength and conditioning, nutrition, stress management, target heart rate, overcoming personal challenges, disease, and how their bodies function.

Physical education and health classes can also reduce negative behaviors among teenagers and have a positive effect on their academic performance. Through regular physical activity, students increase their strength, endurance, and self-esteem while reducing anxiety, stress, weight, and blood pressure. The lessons learned in class can promote lifelong healthy behaviors.

Unfortunately, fiscal constraints, pressures to increase standardized test scores, and changes in philosophy have led to cuts in physical education programs. Fewer students are participating in high school teacher-led programs than in the past. Simultaneously, student obesity, health problems, and stress have steadily increased.

Health education fares much worse. Many high schools do not teach all the essential components of sexual health education. This deficit of knowledge places our youth at a serious disadvantage to protect their health. Without a comprehensive and certified health program in school, students are often exposed to unreliable information by others, including parents, friends, and the internet.

It’s Not Just Health, It’s Wellness

The key to the success of a wellness program is having classes taught by engaging, caring, and highly qualified teachers. A high-quality physical education program begins with a minimum of 225 minutes of instruction per week by certified physical education teachers following established measurable standards.

The particular wellness program proposed here is designed for students in grades 9–12. It is divided between health and physical education classes offered during alternating quarters of the school year (see chart). The primary goal is to provide students with opportunities and experiences to gain the knowledge and decision-making skills necessary to promote healthy practices while living safely in a constantly changing environment. Having a balanced wellness approach to physical and health education is key to a child’s success.

Health Education Courses

Beginning freshman year, health classes emphasize the topics of substance abuse prevention and family living while stressing the importance of good decision-making and problem-solving techniques. A family unit includes physical and social development, reproductive anatomy, and contraception.

Sophomore health explores the causes, prevention, and treatment of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and infectious diseases to develop decisive personal skills and lifestyles to prevent the progression of these diseases. Substance abuse and nutrition are included in the lessons as they relate to these disease topics.

During a separate quarter, the most anticipated course is Driver’s Education. This class is geared toward developing thoroughly trained, skillful, and well-informed drivers with safe and courteous attitudes.

As students mature, the focus in Health 11 is on mental health to enhance personal and interpersonal life skills. (ACT and SAT tests, college tours, tutors, and thoughts about life after graduation can create a very stressful junior year!) Self-esteem issues and topics including eating disorders; depression; suicide prevention; and the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social needs of individuals, groups, and families are addressed in this class. We also explore the impact of nutrition and substance abuse on mental health.

Twelfth-grade topics cover the critical skills needed to respond to and manage an emergency situation until emergency medical services arrive. Upon successful completion of the course, the American Heart Association certifies each student in CPR, AED, and first aid.

Physical Education Courses

To maintain a healthy state of fitness, students at all levels are required to participate in aerobic fitness exercises on a regular basis. In order to gain credit for participation, students must exercise in their target heart rate zone. Generally speaking, this is between 150 and 180 beats per minute, and it can be determined by students taking their own pulse or with the use of monitors. Students also participate in dynamic warm-up exercises and stretch during the cool-down period after the activity.

As ninth graders are beginning to grow into their bodies, Freshman Fitness focuses on the five components of fitness: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body mass composition. Students are introduced to the basics of the fitness center and appropriate aerobic pacing.

Project Adventure challenges students to work collaboratively, overcome their fears, and build trust among peers. Students participate in trust-building and problem-solving activities. Students learn to work as a team, rely upon each other, and eventually trust each other when participating on high ropes and climbing activities. As students progress, they are exposed to more difficult climbing activities and challenges.

Strength and Conditioning introduces students to exercise bands, weight machines, and free weights to learn the basics of strengthening techniques. Building upon their successes, students then learn the proper techniques of traditional weightlifting. We explore how to use medicine balls, kettlebells, and additional free weights during more advanced phases of the class.

Junior and senior Physical Education Activities courses teach students lifetime fitness games such as pickle ball, badminton, and tennis. Students experience lifetime sports that increase heart rates and teach the rules, strategies, and techniques to be able to compete throughout life.

Following the Health 11 theme of helping students understand mental health and how to positively reduce life’s pressures, Yoga and Stress Management introduces students to a variety of techniques, including basic yoga poses. We focus on breathing techniques and becoming mindful of one’s body, positioning, and state of mind.

For many students, life after high school presents many opportunities to be on their own and away from home for the first time. Students can find themselves in situations where they may have to rely on their instincts to remain safe. Personal Safety teaches students the basics of self-defense; they learn to avoid certain scenarios, how to be aware of their surroundings, and how to initiate action if faced with a negative situation. We incorporate dynamic kickboxing and aerobics to increase the heart rate.

Senior Wellness for 12th graders is an amalgamation of all topics learned in previous wellness program classes. Students are empowered to explore and develop their own interests toward maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.

Lifetime of Results

A strong wellness program benefits adolescents and gives them the foundation for a healthy lifestyle. An active physical education program can affect a student’s academic classes and increase performance. Additionally, students learn to overcome personal challenges by working together as a team, which boosts confidence and develops skills needed for the workplace. Overall, the sense of accomplishment, knowledge, and skills a wellness program delivers can provide students with a lifetime of advantages—both mental and physical.

Thomas Gorman is principal of Ridgewood High School in New Jersey. He has worked in public education as a social studies teacher and an administrator for 20 years.