Can helping students manage their weight result in higher math scores? According to a Florida study of students 6-13 years old published in the American Journal of Public Health, low-income children who participated in a school-based obesity prevention program not only lost weight or controlled their weight, they also earned higher math scores in state tests.
The study of 4588 elementary students in 5 schools found that children who participated in a school-based nutrition and physical fitness program also earned higher scores in reading, but the difference did not reach the level of statistical significance.
“School-based obesity prevention interventions that include changes to school-provided meals, nutrition and healthy lifestyle education, and physical activity components show promise in improving health and academic performance, particularly among elementary-aged children from low-income backgrounds,” write the researchers. “These findings are particularly encouraging given that many children from low-income backgrounds receive a significant proportion of their daily nutrition requirements at school.”
In low-income communities, children receive a significant portion as much as 51% of their daily food intake from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. A total of 1197 children in the study qualified for free or reduced-price meals from the USDA school lunch program.
Hispanic and Black children in the intervention schools showed more than a 20-point gain in the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) compared with Hispanic and Black children in the control school. White students had 40 point gains compared with students in the control schools. The children in the study who qualified for free or reduced-price meals included 68% Hispanic, 9% Black, 15% white and 8% from other ethnic groups.
One of the goals of the Healthier Options for Public School Children (HOPS) was to modify school menus to include more high-fiber items such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, fewer high-glycemic items (high-sugar cereals and processed flour goods) and lower amounts of saturated and trans fats.
Reduced-fat milk was substituted for whole milk and child-friendly foods such as chicken patties were made healthier by coating them with whole wheat flour rather than white flour. Intervention menus contained approximately twice as much fiber and 23% less fat than did menus in the control school, according to the study.
Another goal of HOPS was to teach children and parents about nutrition and a healthy lifestyle using USDA and The OrganWise Guys materials. (The OrganWise Guys Inc, Duluth, GA http://www.organwiseguys.com). Educators promoted healthy eating with Foods of the Month posters, newsletters and tastings and school gardens. During year 2 of the program, children were given pedometers and OrganWise Guys tracking books to encourage walking, but many children lost or broke the pedometers so the program was discontinued.
Instead, schools were asked to conduct daily 10-15 minute desk-side physical activity programs (WISERCISE!, The Organ Wise Guys Inc., or TAKE10!, ILSI Research Foundation, Washington, DC). The desk-side physical activities are matched with core academic areas such as spelling and math so teachers can stay on task while increasing the daily physical activity of their students. Schools also were asked to offer more structured physical activity during recess and to lead other activities such as walking clubs.
Fewer intervention children gained weight compared with students in the control school. Significantly more children in the intervention schools stayed within the normal weight range for their height during both years of the study. Although not statistically significant, more obese children in the intervention schools (4.4% vs. 2.5%) decreased their Body Mass Index percentile compared to children in the intervention schools.
Among the limitations of the study is that eating and exercise habits outside of school, including extended out-of-school time for holidays and summer vacation, were not controlled. Also the study design did not keep track of how much time was spent in classrooms on the nutrition and fitness curricula. The unit analysis for this pilot study was a school rather than an individual.
“These findings indicate that school-based interventions targeting obesity prevention can have indirect positive effects on academic performance among low-income children who are at high risk for both obesity and poor academic achievement,” the researchers write.
“Effect of a Two-Year Obesity Prevention Intervention on Percentile Changes in Body Mass Index and Academic performance in Low-Income Elementary School Children,” by Danielle Hollar et al., American Journal of Public Health, April 2010, Volume 100, Number 4, pps. 646-653.