Physical Health

Physical health is defined as the condition of the body, taking into consideration everything from the absence of disease to fitness level. Physical health is critical for overall well-being and can be affected by:

  • Lifestyle: diet, level of physical activity, and behavior (for instance, smoking);
  • Human biology: a person’s genetics and physiology may make it easier or harder to achieve good physical health;
  • Environment: our surroundings and exposure to factors such as sunlight or toxic substances;
  • Healthcare service: good healthcare can help prevent illness, as well as to detect and treat illness.

Adolescence is a time for youth to take more responsibility for their physical health. They can learn to make healthy food choices, be active, and engage in their own healthcare. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adolescents get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Support from family and friends can increase positive youth behaviors.

A healthcare transition is when adolescents move from pediatric care to adult primary care. For medical check-ups, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides an immunization schedule that can help adolescents and parents determine which vaccines may be needed. Adolescents who have chronic conditions also can begin to learn how to manage their own health. To support this, parents and caretakers can provide education, skills training, and problem-solving coaching. The following sections provide a detailed look at adolescent physical health and related resources.


Wake County Planning Blueprint Outcomes:

Number of child pedestrian injuries

Percent of youth who are at a healthy weight

Percent of youth who smoke traditional and e-cigarettes

Number of youth who are abused and neglected

Rate of testing for STDs/STIs in the youth population

Rate of STDs/STIs in the youth population


Substance Use Prevention

Substance use can have a big impact on a youth’s health and experts are encouraging prevention services and screenings for younger and younger youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening for use in children at 9 years old. Substance use among youth can impact their physical health, emotional health, mental health, and social health. Use can cause academic problems, increases the risk for physical violence including car accidents, and dependence which can lead to addiction. The most commonly used substance among youth is alcohol with 60% of people aged 12-20 engaging in binge drinking which is 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion for males, and 4 or more for females. (SAMHSA). Opioid misuse, while still a problem with adults, has been decreasing among youth. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “among high school seniors, past-year misuse of pain medication, excluding heroin, decreased from a peak of 9.5% in 2004 to 3.4% in 2018 with youth believing opioids are hard to obtain than in the past”. While any youth is at risk for substance use, there are many protective factors to prevent opioid misuse including, caring adults, treating pain cautiously especially after health procedures, locking medications to decrease access, role-playing potential situations with youth, and positive family, school, and community environments.

Learn more about substance use here.

Food Security and Nutrition

Healthy nutrition, as well as food security and access, is important for a young person to grow and develop properly. Adolescence is an extremely important time for youth to take in extra nutrients to support bone growth, hormonal changes, and tissue development, including the brain. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans children and youth should follow a healthy eating pattern that includes: a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, a variety of protein foods, and healthy fats including oils. Children and youth should also limit added sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages (empty calories), and high sodium foods. Healthy eating habits can help youth maintain a healthy body weight for their size and shape, consume important nutrients necessary for growth and development, and reduce the risk of long-term health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and others.

It is also important to note that not all youth have access to healthy foods. Almost 1 in 5 children in Wake County are food insecure which means they do not know where their next meal is coming from. According to the 2017 Wake County Comprehensive Food Security Plan and Action Manual, “Moving Beyond Hunger”, food security exists when “everyone has physical, social, and economic access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate, and affordable food.” It is imperative to not only educate youth on healthy eating habits but also to ensure they have access to healthy meals. 

Learn more about nutrition and food security here.

Reproductive Health/STIs

Adolescence marks the time between being a child and being an adult and is a time of many hormonal, physical, emotional, and social changes. According to the Pew Research Center, “the teen birth rate in the United States is at a record low, dropping below 18 births per 1,000 girls and women ages 15 to 19 for the first time since the government began regularly collecting data on this group.”

Still, North Carolina ranks 22 out of 50 for teen birth rates with 1 being the highest and 50 being the lowest and rates are higher in the United States than in many other developed nations. For Wake County-specific numbers, check out SHIFTNC. While hormonal birth control (pills, IUD, etc) and barrier methods (condom) can reduce the risk of pregnancy as well as STI transmission in the case of barrier methods, only 40-50% of youth report using condoms during their last sexual engagement. It is imperative youth receive comprehensive sexual health education that includes contraception use.

Learn more about reproductive health here.

Physical Activity

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, children and youth ages 6-17 years old should engage in 60 minutes (1 hour) of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is defined as anything that increases breathing and heart rate. Examples of moderate-intensity include: walking briskly, dancing, water aerobics, and general gardening. Examples of vigorous-intensity include: jogging or running, swimming, hiking, bicycling, and jumping rope. Regular physical activity promotes higher levels of fitness, stronger muscles and bones, improved brain health including focus, concentration, and academic performance, reduced symptoms of depression, and more. Regular physical activity at a young age also promotes healthy habits long-term and can help decrease risk factors for various health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes later in life.

Learn more about physical activity here.

Vaping and Tobacco Use

Many recent surveys regarding youth vaping and tobacco show an increase in youth use with over 4.1 million high school students and 1.2 million middle school students reporting the use of an e-cigarette. This equates to 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students. In North Carolina, current e-cigarette use has increased 430% in middle school students and 894% in high school students since 2011. E-cigarette or vape devices are battery-powered that deliver nicotine and flavorings to the user in the form of an aerosol. While they come in many sizes and shapes, vape devices are often misidentified as tech devices which can make them more difficult to identify. An increasingly popular e-cigarette is JUUL which is shaped like a flash drive and comes in many flavors. While the FDA recently banned many of the flavors in January 2020, many youth are still using vaping products, so it is imperative they understand the dangers of using nicotine and e-cigarettes.

Learn more about vaping and tobacco use here.


Youth violence is the “intentional use of physical force or power to threaten or harm others by young people ages 10-24” and can have significant long-term impacts on youth well-being. It is also one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Violence can include anything from fighting to bullying to threatening with weapons in person as well as online. 1 in 5 high school students reports being bullied at school in the last year and 1 in 7 was electronically bullied. (CDC) The impacts of youth violence are more than just physical. While it is one of the leading causes of death for young people, it is preventable. For example, positive family, school, and community environments, quality education, strengthening a youth’s skills, and connecting youth to caring adults and activities are all protective factors to prevent youth violence.

Learn more about youth violence here.