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Why we should add health literacy to the Curriculum

This blog post was written by Tess Wilson, a Membership Consultant with Australian Fitness Network. A former competitive swimmer, Tess is passionate about healthy living and the life-enhancing power of healthy, nourishing and delicious real food.

From childhood most of us are taught the importance of developing literacy skills. Our school years teach us to work effectively with information – empowering us with the skills to understand, apply, and evaluate information, and encouraging the creation of new ideas.

Literacy is most commonly thought of as the ability to read and write, and these skills extend across all aspects of our lives. One of the most important areas in which literacy skills are essential is health. Given the rising rates of childhood obesity in Australia it is vitally important to foster an understanding of the importance of health from a young age. The role of schools in providing quality physical education is now more important than ever.

Our ability to access and utilise essential health information is a fundamental skill that enables us to make informed decisions when it comes to our health. Health literacy is the term most frequently used to describe our ability to understand, appraise and apply information to make effective decisions about our health and healthcare. An adequate level of health literacy equips us with the knowledge and ability to read and understand labels or instructions on medication packaging, fill in healthcare forms, and know when and how to make an appointment with a healthcare professional. Developing an adequate understanding of our health allows us to cultivate a positive relationship with our body, ensuring that we can effectively manage periods of illness as well as periods of good health.

A survey by The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 60 per cent of Australians have less than adequate levels of health literacy. This means that only 40 per cent of Australian adults are able to follow and understand health messages and hence reach appropriate decisions when it comes to their health.

Low health literacy is associated with increased rates of hospitalisation and greater use of emergency care, the inability to interpret labels and health messages effectively, poorer health knowledge and higher health care costs. Individuals with a high level of health literacy are able to make the important connection between quality and balanced nutrition, physical activity and mental health; those without this ability are therefore at a much higher risk of developing unhealthy lifestyle habits; making them more susceptible to obesity and chronic disease.

Improving health literacy begins with education, and this should start in early childhood. Unfortunately, due to a lack of implementation and support, the quantity and quality of physical education in both primary and secondary schools has declined. Turning this around starts by increasing not only the time spent on physical education but also in increasing the importance that is placed on this form of knowledge.

Health and physical education need to be delivered regularly and taught well in order for this aspect of literacy to stand alongside language and numeracy as a core form of valued knowledge. Teaching and reinforcing the importance of health from a young age equips children with the skills they need to manage their own health later in life.

It is vital to initiate a positive relationship with our bodies from a young age. The more we understand the needs of our own body, the better equipped we are to manage during times of illness. For example, someone with an appropriate level of health literacy can effectively recognise why they might be experiencing a headache. If we are able to understand why the headache is there, whether it is due to dehydration, lack of food, or lack of sleep, we can appropriately address and manage the issue without always relying on medication. This knowledge and understanding of our own bodies helps to lower individual health care costs, and in some cases reduces the use of acute health services.

Taking action to address health literacy is therefore imperative. All schools need to ensure that they deliver the mandated hours of physical education and sport each week. According to the NSW Department of Education this equates to a minimum of 150 minutes of planned moderate physical activity each week for all students from kindergarten through to year twelve. One way of ensuring the regular inclusion of physical education is to assess these skills together with literacy and numeracy, thereby encouraging schools and the government to prioritise physical education and health literacy.

There are also ways in which we can improve our own health literacy. As a consumer, make sure that you discuss any difficulties you have in understanding health information or services, ensure that you are open and honest with healthcare providers about your medical history, engage in health education to improve your knowledge, and raise awareness among your family and friends about the importance of health literacy.

School communities, parents and individuals can all play a part in addressing health literacy. We can all make an investment in health education because, let’s face it, a healthy life is a life well lived.

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