Today is the first day of school for many children in our area. Students, parents, and teachers are starting another school year filled with opportunities for children to learn and grow through math and science, reading and writing, and art and music. To be sure, this is time well spent since these subjects help kids build a strong foundation that will help them succeed in school and beyond, something that is widely understood and appreciated.
Physical activity and good nutrition have long been recognized as essential for promoting good health in adults and children. More and more research suggests that these behaviors can have beneficial effects beyond health, including how we perform both physically and mentally. The emphasis here is on children in school, but it applies to adults, too. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, just in time for the first day of school here.
Children should also learn about good nutrition and physical activity, since both good health and good education are essential for lifelong happiness and success. In most schools, though, most kids won’t experience much meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.
In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. And good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most schools hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!
Unfortunately, taking time for activity and good nutrition is seen as a luxury or a distraction to learning in most schools. Far from being a distraction, physical activity and healthy eating are prerequisites for learning and academic achievement. In short, these often ignored factors can help make sure children are ready to learn.
The message that children need to eat breakfast before school is well-known and many schools offer breakfast for kids who don’t get it at home. Eating a good breakfast improves cognitive function, alertness, and academic performance in students of all ages. It should be no surprise, then, that skipping breakfast impairs cognitive function and academic achievement. This is one reason that many schools offer breakfast to start the day or include a healthy mid-morning snack.
Similarly, lunch is an important part of the school day. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, these meals also present an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools.
The same is true for physical activity. Research shows that activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades). This is particularly relevant for children with ADHD, but the effects can be seen in all kids. These positive changes can maximize class time and lead to improvements in academic achievement, especially math and reading test scores.
The effect of physical activity on brain may be due to physiological adaptations that are associated with enhanced attention, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is delivered through physical education classes, classroom activity, recess (especially outdoors), or extracurricular activity—it’s the movement that matters!
Regular physical activity is also essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. Unfortunately, most kids don’t get nearly enough activity at school and many aren’t active at home.
Schools have a unique opportunity to use physical activity and nutrition to promote health, support academic achievement, and teach healthy habits. Since formal nutrition education is missing from most curriculums and PE programs are being reduced or cut completely, schools must be creative to incorporate these essential subjects.
A way around this problem is to make sure children get a chance to move and play, ideally multiple times during the day. This is what recess is for. Teachers can also incorporate activity and nutrition education in the classroom and get away from the idea that kids must be sitting still to learn. As research shows, quite the opposite is true!
The point is that good nutrition and physical activity support academic success and including them in schools is a natural fit. Research and practical experience shows that nutrition and physical activity have a positive effect on learning. In many ways, health education is just as important as reading and math, topics schools don’t trust parents to teach on their own, to future success.
Some argue that parents, not schools, should be responsible for promoting physical activity and good nutrition. I disagree! Since nutrition and activity improve academic performance, schools are the perfect place to teach about these aspects of a healthy lifestyle. There is also no guarantee that children will have opportunities to eat well or be physically active when they go home, so school may be the best chance for many kids to get these benefits.
Given that most children will get only limited opportunities for physical activity and good nutrition at school, these topics necessarily become “homework.” Since most of us could stand to be more active and eat healthier ourselves, we should start by modeling good habits for our children and grandchildren.
Going for a walk in the neighborhood, going to the playground, or doing yard work along with preparing healthy meals and snacks is a good start. Parents and community members should also express their concerns to lawmakers and administrators in an effort to get more health education included in the school day. We should treat nutrition and activity like we treat other subjects. How would you feel if your child’s school wasn’t teaching math?