Because Adolescents Matter Now

  • Nutrition and Physical Activity
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • RSS
  • E-mail this story to a friend!
  • Print this article!

Nutrition and physical activity

Adolescent nutrition and physical activity are important for the development of bone density, the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases, and overall quality of life. Physical activity can improve academic achievement by enhancing concentration and by helping students be more attentive (1). Poor diet and physical inactivity are second only to tobacco as preventable causes of death among adults in the United States (2).  Therefore, it is critical that adolescents have access to healthy food and exercise opportunities and develop lifelong healthy habits.

Data on dietary practices among adolescents suggest that further efforts are needed to promote consumption of minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low-fat or non-fat milk products or other calcium sources.  Only about 80% of California adolescents ages 12-17 report eating the recommended five or more servings of fruits or vegetables per day (3).  Furthermore, almost 75% of teens reports drinking at least one sugary drink each day (3).

While nutrition education is important, broader changes in the availability of and access to healthy foods are needed to ensure that young people have healthy options.  Even when adolescents have the knowledge of healthy eating, they may lack the access to nutritious, low-cost foods.  In low income neighborhoods, in particular, fast foods and junk foods are readily available through snack bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and convenience stores.   The overabundance of unhealthy foods results in consumption of foods with few nutrients which are essential for healthy developments.  For example, females often have calcium, iron, and folate intakes that are below recommended values (4) .

Adolescents should engage in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day on most days of the week as part of play, games, sports, work, transportation, recreation, physical education, or planned exercise, in the context of family, school, and community activities.  Yet, less than two thirds of teens 12-17 get vigorous activities on at least three days each week (3). Levels of physical inactivity vary among ethnic groups: 39.4% Latino youth and 44.8% of Asian youth engaged in physical activity less than three days a week, compared to much lower levels of inactivity among White (29.3%) and African American (27.3%) teens (3).  In addition, data indicates that females, especially older adolescents, are less physically active than males (3).

Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are major risk factors for unhealthy weight. Overweight adolescents face increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, orthopedic ailments, behavior problems, and depression in both adolescence and adulthood (5).  Only about two out of three adolescents ages 12-17 are a healthy weight (5th to 85th percentile BMI), while 18.3% are at risk of overweight and 13.5% are overweight (3).  Rates for overweight vary by ethnicity and gender. About 16.1% of Latino and 18.2% of African-American youth ages 12-17 have a BMI above the 85th percentile and Whites and Asians have the lowest rates of overweight (3). A higher proportion of males are at risk of or overweight than females (3).

School and community policies, neighborhood safety, food availability and affordability, as well as adolescents’ knowledge of health and nutrition all have significant impacts on young peoples opportunities to be healthy.  More efforts to understand these factors and improve the access to and opportunities for healthy eating and active living are needed to prevent obesity and chronic disease and promote young people’s well-being.

Learn More

Data and research are essential tools for raising awareness of adolescent health issues, to plan programs and service delivery, and to formulate policy at the state and local levels.  CAHC is committed to maintaining a website that serves as a gateway to a wide array of resources, and regularly updating our site to include the most up-to-date research.  Direct links are provided when possible, and abstracts are provided for journal articles.

Navigate to the upper right hand corner of this page for a more in-depth look at this health topic.  Sections include research, resources, youth voices, and briefs & fact sheets.

Please contact us if you have additional information you think should be included.


(1) Raviv S, Low, M. (1990) Influence of physical activity on concentration among junior
high-school students. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 70: 67-74.

(2) National  Institutes  of  Health.  (2006).  Most  Behaviors  Preceding  Major  Causes  of
Preventable Death Have Begun By Young Adulthood. Retrieved on August 8, 2007 from
National Institutes of Health website:

(3) California Health Interview Survey.  CHIS 2009 Adolescent Public Use File. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2011.

(4) Alaimo, K., McDowell, M., Briefel, R., Bischof, A., Caughman, C., Loria, C. and Johnson, C.
(1994). Dietary intake of vitamins, minerals, and fiber of persons ages 2 months and
over in the United States: Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Phase
1, 1988–91. Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics, 258, 1–28.

(5) Kvaavik, E., Tell,G., Klepp, K. (2003). Predictors and tracking of body mass index from
adolescence into adulthood: follow-up of 18 to 20  years in the Oslo Youth Study.
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 157, 1212–1218.