Healthy Habits

From the Headmaster's Desk, March 19, 2018

It has been cold at times this half term, but everything is relative. Granted, it may have been colder than what we are used to, but it was not Siberia or Iceland. In Iceland, their average temperatures in February are the very same that we experienced again this weekend.

But Iceland is also a great success story, despite having a much colder climate than the UK.  The success is with their youth: they provide wonderful opportunities for young people, in a range of activities. To a certain extent, the whole country is similar to an independent school like Blue Coat. Opportunities abound!

Iceland started to look seriously at engaging young people 20 years ago when Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe.

Today Icelandic youths are the cleanest-living teenagers on the planet. Teenage drinking has dropped from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. Drug use is down by more than 50%, and the number of teens who smoke has dropped from 23% to 3%! There has been an extraordinary decline of ‘users’ across the spectrum.

The success of the country is based on radical and evidence-based programmes, but also common sense. The primary research comes from a university in Colorado, where they looked at why people become addicted: they have concluded that addiction is due to changes in brain chemistry.

When you engage in sport or music or attack a climbing wall, you get a rush. Doing almost any sort of activity alters your brain chemistry and gives you a natural high. Drugs and alcohol do the same thing – they alter your brain and become addictive, but unlike cultural or sporting activities, they have dangerous side effects.

The reality is that people can become addicted to anything. Cars, money, social media, gaming, coffee or Coca-Cola.

Behavioural addiction is natural to us, which is why I head out running nearly every day: the addictive nature of the ‘runner’s high’ is well documented.

Iceland got serious about this research and its youth. The government engaged with researchers who said, why not orchestrate a ‎social movement around natural highs?  Teach people to enjoy altering their brain chemistry, changing their consciousness and enjoying it, without using drugs or alcohol.

They didn’t offer treatment centres for their youth; instead, they offered centres that would teach them anything they want. Music, dance, painting, martial arts, football. If you tour around the country, you find athletics tracks, geothermally-heated swimming pools, and artificial football pitches. Every day there is a full range of government support activities. Dare I say it, curling!

The idea is that, by getting lost in these activities, young people experience a variety of alterations in the chemistry of their brain. These experiences help reduce anxiety, and can also give them a natural rush.

Iceland realised that drug education is not as effective; young people quickly tire of listening to another boring lecture on why they should not do drugs. What young people need are rewarding experiences that make them value positive things in life: building a positive habit of reading or playing football or painting or rowing. If you wake up in the morning and you know that you can look forward to something rewarding and fun, then what a wonderful way to wake up.

Research shows that the most successful people are protected from unhealthy addictions with healthy ones. Being involved in organised activities, especially sport, 3-4 times a week, helps to give you good habits. Other things help – feeling cared about at school and also not staying out late at night. As my mother once said to me, nothing good happens after midnight. And as one of my friends once said to me as a teenager, when he observed me heading home: ‘the trick is knowing when to go home – and you are very good at that’. In Iceland, it is law that 16-year-olds must be home before 10pm, and before midnight in the summer. My mother knew this was a good idea before these researchers or the Icelandic government.

I have visited more than a hundred schools in my career, in Africa and Asia and all across the UK.  I know first-hand how many of them lack the opportunities and resources that we have here at Blue Coat. How lucky you all are to be at this school, where you can do so many things. So, get out there and take advantage of all that is on offer here, build some healthy habits, and enjoy the fact that it is much warmer than Iceland.

Have a great week.


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