INTRODUCTION: Significant health problems encountered in adulthood often have their roots in health behaviours initiated during adolescence. In order to reverse this trend, school and health personnel, as well as parents and other community members working with high school students, need to be aware of the health-related beliefs and choices that guide the behaviours of teenagers. Although a wide variety of research has been conducted on this topic among urban adolescents, less is known about the health beliefs and behaviors of adolescents residing in rural areas, particularly in Canada. In general, rural Canadians are less healthy than their urban counterparts. Building on the knowledge and understanding of their own community, key stakeholders were invited to engage in the design and implementation of a participatory action research project aimed at understanding and improving the health of rural adolescents.METHODS: A group of parents, teachers, students, school administrators and public health nurses engaged in a participatory action research project to better understand determinants of the health of rural adolescents at a high school in Western Canada. Group members developed and administered a health survey to 288 students from a small rural high school, in an effort to identify areas of concern and interest regarding health practices and beliefs of rural adolescents, and to take action on these identified concerns.RESULTS: Results indicated some interesting but potentially worrying trends in this population. For example, while frequent involvement in a physical activity was noted by 75.9% of participants, close to half of the females (48%) described their body image as 'a little overweight' or 'definitely overweight', and approximately 25.8% of respondents noted that they skipped meals most of the time. Differences between the genders were apparent in several categories. For example, more girls smoked (16.2%) than boys (12.3%), and more males (55.0%) than females (41%) had tried illegal drugs. Participants indicated awareness of other health-compromising behaviours, including unsafe driving habits and high stress levels, and acknowledged several steps they wanted to take to improve their health, as well as the barriers to taking those steps. Students identified improved nutrition, stress reduction, and increased levels of physical activity as particular important health goals. Students also recommended ways in which information and support could be provided within the school environment to enable them to achieve their health-related goals. Several activities developed in collaboration with students have incorporated the recommendations, and have spawned other activities in response to the ongoing identification of new concerns.CONCLUSIONS: The process of including the rural community in the identification of health assets and needs from the perspective of students -- as well as the planning and implementation of appropriate strategies to address those needs -- demonstrates the strengths inherent within a small rural population. Community members' awareness of the need to create a healthy environment for youth is reflected in their willingness to participate in activities leading to improved health. Greater awareness of the health needs of rural adolescents, and of the influence of gender in some aspects of health behaviors, will help researchers to explore ways in which the unique culture of rural communities can be harnessed to help shape health-focused interventions.