NASSP’s vision is to have “great leaders in every school committed to the success of each student.” Holistically, how do we promote “the success of each student”?

First of all, commit to the notion that the educational experience will be most beneficial if we recognize the mind and body as an interrelated system. Two scientifically supported concepts introduced several decades ago—health literacy and physical literacy—deserve our attention. Rather than a dichotomy, addressing both forms of literacy together should be viewed as a unifying concept focused on the student.

This commitment includes not only the reading, writing, and math literacies within a classroom setting, but also the health and physical literacies that might occur outdoors, in the gymnasium, in the pool, and on sports fields. With that in mind, educators have a significant opportunity and obligation to impact students’ current—as well as lifelong—success and learning related to their overall health and wellness.

Educational organizations and researchers around the world have supported this notion—that the concepts of health literacy and physical literacy should be given the same educational value as other accepted school-related literacies. By developing healthy, habitual behaviors, including regular physical activity and limited sedentary behavior, students are more likely to perform better in the classroom as well. In fact, research indicates that healthy, active people clearly show greater brain activity.

Health and Physical Literacy

If our goal is to prepare students for an overall life of success, we may want to broaden our lens to include a renewed perspective of health and physical literacy. These two areas of study need to prepare our students for healthy, active lifestyles and to maintain their longevity and quality of life. Embracing these terms and concepts requires us to take a broader view of the term “literacy” and potentially re-evaluate what is being taught in our schools.

Interestingly, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken this approach over the past few decades. While the word “literate” has meant “to be familiar with literature” or, more generally, “well-educated, learned,” UNESCO has since broadened the idea far beyond the simple process of acquiring basic cognitive skills. The organization now views literacy as the ability to use these cognitive skills in ways that contribute to socio-economic development, as well as the ability to develop the capacity for social awareness and critical reflection as a basis for personal and social change. The term literacy has also evolved from a specific domain to one based within the interdisciplinary world in which we live. It has become more familiar and commonplace in our language, as many of us use terms such as “computer literacy” and “music literacy” within our school environment. We believe that our future will incorporate these literacies in schools and beyond, such as in the workplace.


One of the current definitions of health literacy is “people’s knowledge, motivation, and competences to access, understand, appraise, and apply health information in order to make judgments and take decisions in everyday life concerning health care, disease prevention, and health promotion to maintain or improve quality of life during the life course.” The researchers who developed the definition found it encompassed the public health perspective and accommodated an individual approach by substituting the three domains of health—“health care, disease prevention, and health promotion”—with “being ill, being at risk, and staying healthy.”

The International Physical Literacy Association (IPLA) adopted the following definition:  Physical Literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life. The definition includes the essential and interconnected elements:

  • Motivation and confidence (affective)
  • Physical competence (physical)
  • Knowledge and understanding (cognitive)
  • Engagement in physical activities for life (behavioral)

The relative importance of each of these elements will change throughout a person’s lifespan; therefore, we must prepare our students to make informed decisions based on available valid data about their lifestyle choices.

It is important to understand that learning, pursuing, and applying these literacies is a lifelong process regardless of physical endowment. Further, this involves a continuum of learning in enabling students to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

Educators’ Role

Health and physical educators can help elevate the important role of their professions, and the impact they have on the wellness of their students, by embracing and learning more about these new approaches to literacy.

Principals can support their teachers by embracing this holistic approach of developing the mind and body of students through teacher education, school-based collaborations among departments, and overall understanding and implementation of health and physical literacy projects. To paraphrase UNESCO, these forms of literacy are not programs, but rather outcomes of structured provisions that are more readily achieved if learners encounter a range of age- and stage-appropriate opportunities.

Learning about both forms of literacy empowers proficiency, along with a commitment to improve health and physical activity by changing personal lifestyles and living conditions. As a result, students educated in health and physical literacy are better prepared to assert the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors/skills to make informed decisions and take responsibility for maintaining, and helping others to maintain, purposeful health and physical activity pursuits throughout the course of a lifetime.

Paul Roetert, PhD, is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida in the College of Health and Human Performance in Gainesville. Scott W. Brown, PhD, is a distinguished professor and the department head of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Implement these specific recommendations to boost health and physical literacy:

  • Recognize the term “literacy,” paralleling the terminology used in other subjects such as technology, reading, and mathematics.
  • Adopt a holistic approach to develop the mind and body of students through teacher education, school-based collaborations among departments, and overall understanding and implementation of health and physical literacy projects.
  • Renew your focus on the importance of quality health choices—and the important role of both health and physical education teachers in the school setting.
  • Establish an overall focus on school-based health, wellness, and physical activity for administrators, teachers, and staff, as well as students.
  • Integrate the concepts of health into the academic curriculum; for example, courses in the social and life sciences.