May 9, 2023

Back to School: Shorter Recesses and Fewer Soft Drinks


In returning to school over the past month, students are returning to environments that well-meaning school boards, principals, teachers and parents are continually trying to improve – both in terms of test scores as well as a healthy environment. However, in some cases good intentions are not yielding positive results, particularly with regard to overweight and obesity in our children.

Under the edict of No Child Left Behind, schools are penalized for falling short on test scores. As a result, schools are pulling out all the stops to improve reading and math performance. One of the well-publicized casualties of No Child Left Behind has been physical education; gym classes have been reduced or cut entirely as schools squeeze in more instruction time. Another casualty, less recognized, has been the free play and activity that occurs during recess.

According to survey data released in February by the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., recess was reduced by 20 percent of districts that reported altering the amount of time they spent on various subjects between 2001 and 2007. During the same time, 58 percent of those districts increased time spent on English and language arts, and 45 percent devoted more time to math.

In a world of increasingly structured play and activity, recess is important not only for the caloric expenditure, but also for the message it conveys to children: that activity is fun, and that unstructured time (which kids have plenty of during evenings and weekends) can involve physical activity, rather than the digital implements that consumer our kids and have made “free time” synonymous with “screen time.” Activity need not be restricted for scheduled activities requiring drop-off and pick-up by an adult. Activity can and should occur all the time. This is the message that recess conveys, and this is one of the challenges faced by our schools.

Another challenge has been to make the school environment healthier. Many school districts have improved school lunches, and removed fast food and junk food from cafeterias and vending machines. Even more have reduced or even banned sales of soda in the school building.

It was only a matter of time before a clever researcher studied the health benefits from banning soda from schools. Meenakshi M. Fernandes, a doctoral fellow at the RAND Corporation, analyzed a survey of 10,215 fifth-grade students in 2,303 schools across 40 states. Almost 40 percent of the schools offered soft drinks for sale, mostly through vending machines. Private schools were more likely than public schools to offer the drinks.

The study, published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that one-quarter of students who attended schools that sold soft drinks reported buying at least one a week. African-Americans and poor students were most likely to buy soft drinks.

In the end, Fernandes found that fifth-graders whose elementary schools didn’t allow the sale of soft drinks consumed just 4 percent less overall than those children in other schools.

Fernandes said she was surprised that students who attended schools without soft drink sales consumed just 4 percent fewer soft drinks than other students. The 4 percent difference was “statistically significant, but I would have expected the magnitude to be greater.” Clearly, limiting availability of soft drinks at schools “doesn’t seem to be the answer” to the challenge of childhood overweight and obesity.

Banning soft drinks aren’t sufficient to end – let alone reverse – this epidemic, especially when other factors (such as further limitations on physical activity) are exacerbating the caloric imbalance. More comprehensive public health, medical and behavioral interventions are necessary to help overweight and obese kids return to a healthy weight.