Students at Kennedy High School in Denver.Colorado youngsters tend to be a bit healthier, a bit fitter and a bit safer than students nationwide, and they seem to have gotten better in some areas than they were four years earlier.

That’s according to results, released Tuesday, of a survey of more than 1,500 Colorado students from 36 high schools around the state.

But there’s no reason for exultation, since the prevalence of risky and unhealthy behaviors is still alarmingly high, and in some cases it’s getting higher, state health and education officials say.

“I think one of the positives that people should take away from the report is that in terms of physical activity, nutrition and obesity, Colorado youth are really doing better than the national average,” said Paula Gumina, a program coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education.

“But there are some things we really need to pay attention to,” she said. “Schools can use this data to really help make strategic decisions about programs and how they allocate resources based on what the youth are telling us they need.”

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey was administered to ninth- to 12th-graders at randomly selected high schools in the fall of 2009. Parts of the same survey were distributed to more than 16,000 teens nationwide in 42 states and 20 large urban school districts. This national Youth Risk Behavior Survey allows officials to compare Colorado students to their peers nationwide.

Key findings among the survey results:

Alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse

  • Tobacco, alcohol and other substance use overall was down slightly in 2009. Just over 72 percent or teens reported having tried alcohol, down from 76 percent; 43 percent reported trying cigarettes, down from 49 percent.
  • Marijuana use remained stable, at just over 42 percent of teens reporting having tried it. Since the survey was taken in 2009, it does not reflect potential effects of the state’s growth in medical marijuana usage. “But we are ramping up now to conduct this survey in the fall of 2011, so that will give us more updated information on tobacco, alcohol and other substance abuse,” Gumina said.
  • Colorado students in 2009 were less likely to report driving after drinking than in 2005, down from 11 percent to 7 percent. Yet a quarter of them reported riding with a driver who was drinking within the past 30 days. However, that’s still less than the national averages: 10 percent who have driven while drinking and 28 percent who have recently ridden with a driver who was drinking.

Depression

  • Depression remains a problem for just over a quarter of Colorado teens, just as in 2005, and nearly 14 percent reported seriously considering suicide in both years. Eleven percent actually made a suicide plan and 7.6 percent did attempt suicide, up slightly from 2005.
  • More significant was the growth in the number of teens who sustained an injury that required medical attention while attempting suicide: 3 percent, up from 1 percent in 2005. Nationwide, the number of suicide-related injuries has declined, from 3 to 2 percent. In  other mental health-related areas, Colorado mirrored national trends.

Diet and exercise

  • Close to 90 percent of Colorado students say they got at least one hour’s worth of physical activity at least one day a week in 2009, up from 80 percent in 2005. And 47 percent said they got a good workout at least five days out of seven, up from 37 percent in 2005. The national average remains 37 percent.
  • But the number of Colorado students who report attending a PE class at least one day a week has fallen, from just over 50 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2009. That’s far below the national average of 56 percent.
  • Only 20 percent of Colorado students were classified as overweight or obese in 2009, roughly the same number as in 2005, but significantly less than the nearly 28 percent of teens nationwide in those categories. However, far fewer reported exercising or eating less to lose weight than in 2005, and nationwide teens are far likelier to change their diets to lose weight than they are in Colorado.
  • Not surprisingly, while boys were slightly more likely to have a weight problem than girls, girls were far more likely to describe themselves as overweight, and vastly more likely to exercise or eat less to lose weight. This is true nationally as well.
  • From a nutrition standpoint, salad consumption is down slightly – 71.5 percent in 2005 ate at least one salad a week, compared to 67 percent in 2009 – but the percentage who report eating at least five fruits or vegetables every day is up, from 19 to 24 percent. Colorado teens do exceed the national averages in their consumption of fruits and veggies, while their milk and soda consumption is comparable.

Differences by ethnicity

  • A number of ethnic differences emerged in regards to risky behaviors among the teens. In Colorado, as well as the rest of the nation, Hispanic students were more likely to report being involved in a physical fight in the past year, and more likely to report being threatened with a weapon and missing school because they felt unsafe.
  • Unlike the rest of the country, Colorado Hispanic students were no more likely to experience relationship violence or forced sexual intercourse than were other students.
  • Bullying in Colorado also appears to be spread more evenly, with no significant differences between Hispanic and non-Hispanic youths reporting it, whereas nationwide, white non-Hispanic youth are more likely to be bullied.
  • Cigarette use is markedly higher among Hispanic students than non-Hispanic whites in Colorado, 55 percent to 39 percent, though that drops to 21 percent and 17 percent respectively when asked about smoking in the past 30 days, the survey shows. Nationally, those differences are even more pronounced.

Sexual activity

  • Sexual behavior remained pretty consistent between 2005 and 2009. Forty percent of high school students reported having had sex at least once in their lives, with close to 30 percent having a current sexual partner. That’s similar to national trends.

Violence and relationship abuse

  • Violence continues to plague a significant number of Colorado’s young people. Nearly a third of students reported engaging in a physical fight in the 12 months before taking the survey – roughly the same percentage as in 2005. And nearly a fifth, or 19 percent, reported having been bullied at school in the previous year. The bullying question was new so there is no point of comparison.
  • One behavior that appears to be up significantly is relationship violence. Just over 9 percent of youths reported having been hit by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the previous year, up from 6 percent in 2005, and 7.7 percent report having been forced to have sex, up from 5.1 percent. These results parallel findings nationwide.

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