Tag Archives: kids

What parents and schools can do to make sure kids are ready to learn

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 health 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.

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.

Regular physical activity is 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.

Physical activity is also important for academic performance. Research shows that children who participated in an activity program had better executive control, which includes resisting distractions and maintaining focus, improved memory, and doing better switching between tasks. 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.

Similarly, good nutrition is also essential for health, growth, development, and academic achievement. 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.

The same is true for lunch, too. A good lunch can support learning in the afternoon and gives a chance to teach kids about good nutrition by providing healthy food that, unfortunately, many children may not get 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!

Schools are often hesitant to teach about nutrition and activity because it is thought of as a responsibility of parents, not schools. But most parents don’t teach these good habits at home, which affects what happens at school. Despite the obvious benefits, it will probably take years of effort to change this view.

In the meantime, parents can encourage their kids to be active and make smarter food choices at home so they are ready to learn in school.

The physical activity report card is in. We pretty much failed.

The spring semester just ended at the university where I teach. Which means my colleagues and I have been busy evaluating our student’s progress and submitting grades.

About this time, another report card came in from the National Physical Activity Plan evaluating physical activity in U.S. children. The results aren’t good. In fact, we pretty much failed! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


It’s probably no surprise that the majority of Americans are not active enough. Only about half of adults meet even the minimum recommendation for physical activity of 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Compounding this problem is the fact that many people spend much of their time at work and home being sedentary—some spend over 12 hours per day sitting!

Low levels of physical activity is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and, of course, obesity in adults. Becoming more active is probably the most important change a sedentary person can make to improve their health. The impact is similar to a smoker who quits.

What may be surprising is that this is a problem for children, too. Less than half of children ages 6–11 are active for 60 minutes per day. Among teenagers, it is less than 10%! The health effects of too little activity in kids is similar to that of adults.

The combination of inactivity and obesity can lead to “adult” diseases such as type 2 diabetes in young people. For this reason, some experts predict that this generation of children may be the first ever to die at a younger age than their parents.

Current recommendations call for children under the age of 18 to attain at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity at least five days per week. In younger kids this can be achieved through active play. In teens it is more likely to include organized sports and games.

The National Physical Activity Plan is a set of recommendations, programs, and initiatives designed to promote an active lifestyle at work, school, and home for all Americans. It was established by an alliance of health professionals and researchers.

This group recently released a report card on physical activity for children and youth that graded the success of efforts to promote activity in several areas. The results show that we are failing to meet even minimum goals and recommendations. Here is a summary of that report card:

Overall physical activity: D-Only 42% of 6–11 year old children and just 8% of kids ages 12–15 meet the 60 minutes per day activity goal.

Sedentary behaviors: D. About half of all children spend more than the recommended upper limit of two hours of screen time, which includes TV, computer, and video games, per day.

Active transportation: F. Just over 10% of children walk or bike to school regularly.

Physical education in school: C-Only about half of children attend at least one PE class per week.

Based on these grades, American children are not getting enough physical activity. But it isn’t fair to say that our children are earning these grades—it’s the adults who are failing! Most children are at the mercy of parents, teachers, and other adults who decide how they will spend their time at school and at home.

The report card shows that we are either not allowing our kids to be active enough or limiting opportunities for them to move and play. This isn’t necessarily a conscious effort, but is likely a consequence of the physical activity habits of adults that our children adopt.

Given the importance of regular activity for growth, development, health, and even academic success, getting our kids to be more active should be among our highest priorities. This requires both individual action and organized community efforts to make physical activity and exercise a part of every child’s day.

And while we are at it, we (the adults) should make this same effort. Perhaps the failing grades on the recent report card will motivate us.

That’s NOT fruit!

Making healthy food choices is never easy. It is made more challenging by the fact that some foods that appear to be a smart choice may be less healthy than you think.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. It is a topic I have addressed in the past that is still relevant today. Specifically, regarding what my kids picked for breakfast this morning! This shouldn’t be a surprise, since many foods that look healthy, but aren’t are breakfast foods marketed to children.

Often, prepackaged fruits and vegetables contain added sugar, fat, or salt, making them less healthy than eating them fresh. Consumption these foods can also make it less likely that people—especially children—will eat fresh fruits and vegetables when they are available.

The problem is that these foods may look like fruit. They may even contain real fruit juice. But many drinks and snacks–especially for kids– that look like fruit are really candy in disguise.

Here are a couple of examples of foods that may appear to be healthy but, upon closer examination, turn out to be less nutritious than we might think.

Fruit snacks: These gummy fruit treats are a favorite among kids. If you check the package you will probably see that they contain real fruit or fruit juice, so they must be healthy, right? While there is variation among different brands, in most cases these snacks contain little, if any, actual fruit. If you read the ingredients you will see that they do contain lots of added sugar, meaning that many of these snacks are essentially candy. In fact, if you compare some brands of fruit snacks with something that is easily recognized as candy, such as gummy bears, you will see that they have a similar sugar content.

Fruit drinks: Not everything that looks like fruit juice is actually juice. Take Sunny D for example. This popular orange drink contains mostly sugar and water—and only 5% juice. By contrast, real orange juice contains fewer calories and more vitamins per serving. In fact, if you compare the ingredients and nutrition information, Sunny D is essentially orange soda without the bubbles!

There are two problems with this. First, some foods that appear to be healthy because they either claim to or actually do contain fruit are actually less healthy than we might believe. Considering that fruit snacks and fruit drinks are likely to be consumed as alternatives to real fruit juice or a piece of fruit as a snack, these foods could lead to poor nutrition. This is especially true in children.

Second, sweetness is one of the most important tastes we respond to. Consuming food and beverages that are flavored like fruit but are actually much sweeter may make real fruit less palatable. Again, this is especially true for children who may develop an expectation that strawberries should taste like strawberry-flavored fruit snacks or that orange juice should taste as sweet as Sunny D. These kids are likely to prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit. Since these sugar-sweetened “fruits” tend to be higher in calories, consumption of these foods is one contributor to childhood obesity.

This isn’t just the case with fruit. Adding salt and sauces to vegetables makes them more flavorful, to the point that many of us don’t eat plain vegetables very often. The majority of potatoes are consumed in the form of French fries, loaded with both fat and salt. This has changed how we expect potatoes to taste so that now we typically eat baked potatoes “loaded” with butter, sour cream, cheese or bacon. When was the last time you ate a plain baked potato?

But there are some simple steps you can take to get back to eating real fruit and vegetables. Look for 100% fruit juice or, better yet, a piece of fruit instead of fruit-flavored drinks. Instead of sugar-sweetened fruit snacks, try dehydrated fruit. Cut back on the salt, butter, and other toppings you add to vegetables or purchase frozen vegetables without added sauces.

Just in time for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month: The completely unauthorized and ill-advised childhood obesity experiment

September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, which is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard today.

Although the causes involve a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, and environmental factors (as this article explains), most cases likely involve too little activity and too much energy intake, particularly added sugars. It is important to note that both diet and activity play a role, and both a targets for prevention and treatment. The same is true for adults, too.

Obesity among children, both young kids and teenagers, is associated with serious health, social, and psychological problems. In fact, obese children, especially those who are inactive, tend to develop “adult” diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes.

And while we know that obesity and inactivity in kids is a problem, I don’t think we realize how bad it is now or will be in the future. That’s because no one has any idea what will happen to an obese 12-year old who develops type 2 diabetes. Adults who become diabetic are at higher risk for an early heart attack; does this mean that a 12-year old will be on the fast track  toward a heart attack at age 30?

We don’t know. But I think we are going to find out. Unfortunately, it’s as though we are experimenting with a generation of children to find out.


A real happy meal for kids

My family happened to be in Earthfare the other evening and discovered a really healthy meal option for kids.


The main meal options all seem kid-friendly and come with healthy sides including fruit salad, veggies, and bottled water. This is far better than the burgers and fried chicken nuggets that are the norm in most kid’s meals. And while some fast food restaurants offer fruit and veggies as options, French fries are typically the norm.

The price, at $3.99, is comparable to kids meals elsewhere, including a Happy Meal at McDonalds. Even better, we were there on a Thursday, so kids ate for free!

All around, this was a much happier kids meal than we could have found most anyplace else.