The positive link between nutrition, physical activity, and academic success

Tags: nutrition, children, childhood obesity, dairy council

The positive link between nutrition, physical activity, and academic success

By Katie Barckholtz, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.
Director of Health and Wellness, Dairy MAX, Inc.

Healthy behaviors support better learning. Poor nutrition, inactivity, and unhealthy weight may not only lead to poor academic achievement in children, but also hard costs for individuals, schools, and society. These costs include spiraling health care expenses, lower productivity, and a workforce unprepared for global competition. It is clear that student nutrition and physical activity must be a priority for our society’s future well-being. Unfortunately, across the United States, schools face tremendous challenges to meet economic, health, and academic demands. Many schools lack the funds to execute school wellness policies or to start breakfast programs or enhance these programs. As pressures mount to improve standardized test scores, many districts are shortening or eliminating opportunities for physical activity, such as recess and physical education classes.

Given the nature of these problems and even in light of these barriers, the solution for healthier children certainly starts with schools and with the communities in which they live. The GENYOUth Foundation, National Dairy Council, American College of Sports Medicine, and the American School Health Association have come together to release a report entitled “The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success Through Healthy School Environments.” The report and the research within help make the case that health is not a competing priority to academic performance; in fact, healthy behaviors, including good nutrition and physical activity, can help students learn better. In essence, healthy students are better students. Research shows that improved nutrition, daily breakfast, and increased physical activity can lead to improved academic performance.

Schools are a focal point for action. Apart from home, schools are one of the most important places to impact children’s nutrition and physical activity. Proven school wellness programs like Fuel Up to Play 60, an in-school nutrition and physical activity program funded by National Dairy Council and the National Football League, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, empower students to make positive changes at school and can bring healthy changes to life in the classroom. Some studies suggest that just increasing children’s access to good nutrition and regular physical activity can lead to enhanced classroom achievement.

Breakfast matters. Research continues to support the importance of that morning meal. Research shows that those who eat breakfast have better attention and memory than breakfast skippers. Students who are more active during school perform better on standardized tests for reading, math, and spelling. School breakfast programs that offer nutrient-rich foods—such as low-fat and fat-free dairy, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins—are especially important as a simple, cost-effective means to address food security issues and can impact children’s nutrition and readiness to learn.

American kids spend more than 2,000 hours in school each year where in-school wellness policies can encourage healthy habits. Schools are an ideal place to promote childhood health and wellness, but they cannot act alone. Parents, schools, health professionals, business leaders, and the larger community must work together to affect change for children’s health and wellness in schools. To learn more about the research and for the full Wellness Impact report and resources, and for ways to support your local school wellness programs, visit