Deeper Dive: Survey of U.S. High School Students

Every two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveys high school students across America about their health behaviors. The most recent data from CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) were released in June 2018 and can help inform efforts for helping kids achieve a healthy weight. According to reports from high school students in 2017:

Nearly one-third have obesity or are overweight. Among high school students, 14.8% reported having obesity; another 15.6% reported being overweight. The levels of obesity varied considerably across states—from a low of 9.5% in Colorado to a high of 21.7% in Arkansas.

Physical activity levels are low. National guidelines recommend that adolescents get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. The latest data show that 73.9% of high school students don’t meet that standard. The survey also found that 43% spend three or more hours per day playing video games or using a computer for leisure.

Many do not eat breakfast, fruit or vegetables every day. Only 35.3% of high school students eat breakfast daily; 40.6% reported not eating vegetables daily, and 39.2% did not eat fruit or drink 100% fruit juice at least once a day.

It’s water over sugary drinks.
75.4% of respondents reported having at least one bottle or glass of water daily; 18.7% drink one or more sodas daily; and 12.4% had one or more sports drinks daily.

Serious racial and ethnic inequities persist.
Compared with white students, black and Latino students had higher rates of obesity, were less likely to meet physical activity guidelines, and had lower prevalence of eating breakfast each day.

Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System

Obesity Rates


State-by-state rates of obesity according to self-reported data by U.S. high school students. 

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Graphic showing HS activity rates

Nutrition Habits


Reports from U.S. high school students about daily consumption of soda, breakfast, fruits and vegetables.

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High school physical activity in the US

Physical Activity


Reports from U.S. high school students about  physical activity, physical education and daily screen time.

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We asked Holly Hunt, Chief, CDC’s Healthy Schools, to provide some insight about the latest data.

Q: What do these data tell us about high schoolers’ nutrition and physical activity habits?
A: These data can help us identify where more efforts are needed to help teens eat healthier and be more active. For example, schools and afterschool programs play a critical role in helping all kids grow up healthy. This can be especially true in underserved communities where families lack access to affordable, nutritious foods and safe places for play.

Offering healthy meals, snacks, and drinks throughout the day, providing time for physical activity, and educating students about healthy options are some strategies that schools and afterschool programs can put in place to help kids establish lifelong healthy habits.

Q: What can we learn about trends over time from the YRBSS? Should we compare 2017 data with previous surveys to determine if behaviors or obesity rates are changing?
A: It’s important to examine the data to monitor trends over time. We know that there have been no dramatic changes over time. Rates of adolescent obesity rose from 10% in 1999 to 15% in 2017 but have plateaued for the past few surveys. However, the prevalence of certain behaviors does change, or we might see changes over time among sub-groups of the survey (e.g., girls or boys, racial/ethnic groups).

Q: How are states selected for each survey? Why are there no data for my state in the 2017 survey?
A: The YRBSS is available for all states to administer. Four states—Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming—don’t participate in the YRBSS. And among the states that do participate, some don’t have a high enough response rate to provide meaningful results. This is why some states don’t have data for every biannual survey.

Q: How accurate are self-reported responses from high school students?
A: According to research, it’s as accurate as data self-reported by adults. The survey does include reliability checks to help determine whether students falsify answers, and it’s a small percentage.

Young boy holding plant in a garden

Stories and Expert Perspectives

Hear from experts about the impact of policies and programs in their communities, read interviews with researchers about data releases, and learn how some communities are taking action to help more children grow up healthy, including from places that have measured a decline in childhood obesity rates. 

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Deeper Dive: New Obesity Rate Data for Youth Ages 10 to 17

The Health Resources and Services Administration’s (www.hrsa.gov) National Survey of Children’s Health includes a wide range of data on the health of children ages 0 to 17. Among other topics, the survey provides obesity rates for youth ages 10 to 17. The newest iteration, which combines data from the 2016 and 2017 surveys, was released in October. Some key findings include:

Nearly one in six youth nationwide has obesity. The national obesity rate for youth ages 10 to 17 is 15.8%.

There is a wide range of variation in obesity rates at the state level. Mississippi has the highest rate, at 26.1%, while Utah has the lowest, at 8.7%.

Racial and ethnic disparities in obesity rates persist. Nationally, black youth have the highest obesity rate (22.5%) followed by Hispanic youth at 20.6%, white youth at 12.5%, and Asian youth at 6.4%.

Map of the United States showing obesity rates for children ages 10- to 17

State-By-State Data

Nine of the ten states with the highest youth rates are in the South. Eight of the ten with the lowest rates are in the West or Northeast.

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Issue brief header about state by state obesity rates

Full Report

The new research brief provides data broken down by gender nationally, and by race and ethnicity for every state.

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To learn more about the data, we asked a few questions to Dr. Lydie Lebrun-Harris, a senior social scientist in the Office of Epidemiology and Research at the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau (HRSA MCHB). HRSA MCHB funds and directs the annual National Survey of Children’s Health.

Q: What do these new data tell us about youth obesity rates in the United States?
A: In the big picture, the new data reinforce that childhood obesity remains a significant challenge for the country. Obesity puts young people at risk for a host of serious, long-term health consequences, like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even certain types of cancer. Seeing that one in six young people in the country has obesity reminds all of us that we still have a long way to go to truly turn these rates around.

Q: How much have things changed since the last time the data were collected? What can we learn about trends?
A: The new data released this month combined results from the 2016 and 2017 national surveys. Results from the 2016 survey were released a year ago, and in that short timeframe the vast majority of states showed stable obesity rates. Only one state, North Dakota, saw a statistically significant change in its rate from 2016 to 2016-2017, which dropped from 15.8 percent to 12.5 percent.

Prior to conducting the National Survey of Children’s Health in 2016, it was significantly redesigned, including major changes to the way the survey data were collected. Therefore, it’s not possible to compare the 2016 or 2017 results to earlier years of the survey. In other words, 2016 acts as our new baseline for any examination of trends, and right now we can only compare data from 2016 alone to 2016-2017 combined. We’ll have to wait for additional years of data to see whether the decline in North Dakota continues, or if we start to see shifts in other states’ rates.

Q: What are some of the strengths of the data from the National Survey on Children’s Health? Are there any limitations?
A: A major strength of the survey is that it provides not only national data, but state-by-state data as well. In many instances, it’s also possible to examine differences by race and ethnicity at the state level. The full dataset also includes many other factors relating to children’s health and health care, their families, and communities so there is a rich depth of information available for conducting detailed analyses. In addition, as of 2016, the survey will be conducted every year so we will have up-to-date data to track trends in obesity.

One drawback is that the obesity data are based on parents’ reports of their child’s height and weight. The height and weight are not directly measured. In addition, it is not possible to obtain obesity rates for younger children under the age of 10. This is because research has shown that parents tend to underestimate height for children younger than 10 years, which leads to inaccurate obesity classifications.

Q: What should people do with these new data?
A: The data can help all of us, including those working to improve health at the state level, get a clearer picture of where we stand in our efforts to combat childhood obesity. By taking advantage of the newest data, policymakers at all levels will be better able to advance strategies to help all children achieve and maintain a healthy weight. People who are concerned about this issue can also use these data to get a better sense of how their state is doing in this effort.

Young boy holding plant in a garden

Stories and Expert Perspectives

Hear from experts about the impact of policies and programs in their communities, read interviews with researchers about data releases, and learn how some communities are taking action to help more children grow up healthy, including from places that have measured a decline in childhood obesity rates. 

See More Stories