In recent years, the American education system has focused on preparing students for a global job market and implementing programs and evaluations that intend to encourage a better understanding of reading, writing, language, arithmetic and science. Many schools, in an attempt to provide more academic time, have scheduled physical activity out of the daily routine and have trimmed lunch periods to a minimum in order to teach the necessary material for standards and objectives to be met.
However, recent studies are showing that this increased academic time, at the expense of adequate physical activity and proper nutritional practices, is actually doing more harm to students test scores than it is doing good. Compounding this issue is the general lack of understanding of the link between physical activity, nutrition and academic performance, exemplified by comments made earlier this year in response to an article showcasing a local school’s efforts to incorporate more physical into the school environment. “If we put as much funding into science and math as we do obesity prevention, maybe our students would have better outcomes.” (Bangor Daily News Comments Blog, 2011)
As it turns out, money invested in obesity prevention and programming for physical activity and nutrition is money invested in education. Some states, such as Colorado, have proposed mandates that require physical activity and physical education as part of every school day. The Maine Legislature is considering a bill to pilot a program that increases physical education and evaluate its effect on academic performance. A similar study on an obesity prevention program over a two-year period found that children at the schools who received the intervention exhibited “significantly higher math scores both years” compared to students at the control school.
Teachers in Maine are experiencing first-hand the beneficial effects of physical activity on academic performance. Stacy Schatzbal, third grade teacher at Kennebunk Elementary School, stated, “Teaching math in the afternoon was very difficult. Students were fidgety and unfocused. Now we exercise after lunch for 20 minutes and then begin math. The students and I love math again.”
The same theory can be applied to adults. While a primary concern may not be academic performance, on the job performance may be positively affected by adequate physical activity and proper nutrition. Many of us feel that our performance goes up the more hours we spend at our desk, but in reality, the opposite might be true. Next time you experience that “2:30 feeling”, try taking a short walk, even if it is just around your office building. Grab an apple rather than a candy bar. See how it makes you feel. A study conducted in 2010 found that “greater amounts of walking are associated with greater gray matter volume, which is in turn associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment.”
Make your next step trying to live a healthier lifestyle for one week. A simple way is to use the 5-2-1-0 message – 5 or more fruits and vegetables a day, 2 hours or less of recreations screen time per day, 1 hour or more of physical activity and 0 sugar sweetened beverages. Make it a game within your family to see who can meet their goal each day. Remember, getting your physical activity in smaller chunks still counts – and it doesn’t all have to be on the treadmill. For example, take 15 minutes to run around your back yard or neighborhood park after dinner as a way to get more physical activity into your day.
At the end of the week, talk about how you feel. Did you get more done at work? Have more energy to play outside when you got home? Did you sleep better? Did your children feel like they could pay more attention at school?
Sometimes the answers to our problems are in unusual places. While it would seem logical to spend more time working, or more time teaching math to increase productivity and test scores, taking time to prepare the body to work and learn can be just as valuable.
Lee Averill is the Youth Healthy Lifestyle Project coordinator for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer.