May 9, 2023

Obesity and School: Is There a Connection?


As the new school semester is underway across the country, our thoughts turn to schools and their relationship to the challenge of childhood obesity

Research indicates this relationship is a two-way street: the school environment contributes to the problem (perhaps), and obesity affects the academic performance of children.

Many parents of children whose lives are transformed by Wellspring Camps, Academies and Fit Clubs are quick to attribute the obesity problem to schools. They talk about the junk food and sodas available in school vending machines, the poor nutritional content of lunch items in the school cafeteria, and the reduction in phys. ed. classes and, for younger children, recess time.

While these may be factors for some children, research is clear that the time our children spend in school (i.e., 7 hours for 180 school days – about 20% of total waking hours each year) is not primarily responsible for the obesity epidemic that now has over 1/3 of all children and adolescents overweight or obese. For example, a recent RAND study 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. Clearly, limiting availability of soft drinks at schools doesn’t seem to be the answer to the challenge of childhood overweight and obesity.

While this result may seem counterintuitive, think about it this way: of the many environmental changes that have occurred over the past generation, and that are at the root of the childhood obesity epidemic, has the school environment changed more or less than the home environment in terms of diet and physical activity. The experience of Wellspring families indicates that while there may be some changes to the school environment in the ways described above, the home environment has changed significantly more than the school environment with the advent of digital, screen-based activity as the preferred form of activity for children and teens, and with changes in the way we eat as families (i.e., much higher percentage of overall calories consumed outside the home, where we are not able to control ingredients, mode of preparation or portion size).

As a result, this side of the two-way street that connects obesity to school is somewhat overblown. At the same time, the importance of the other side is underestimated.

New research is appearing on a weekly basis demonstrating the connection between health and academic performance, or conversely between obesity and poor academic performance. As reported just last week, a new study in the Journal of School Health found that physically fit kids scored better on standardized math and English tests than their less fit peers. The odds of passing both standardized math and English tests increased as the number of fitness tests passed increased, even when controlling for gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

This new research confirms the results of two studies published in 2008. A summer 2008 study from Temple University researchers published in the journal Obesity found that overweight students averaged half a grade lower than students at a healthy weight. And another study from the University of Alberta surveyed around 5,000 Canadian fifth grade students and their parents as part of the Children’s Lifestyle and School-Performance Study. The study found that students with an increased fruit and vegetable intake and less caloric intake from fat were 41% less likely to fail the literacy assessment, even when adjusted for socioeconomic status.

Many Wellspring families are initially surprised at these results. Then they think about their experience with their own child, and the pieces begin falling into place.

We are not suggesting that school-based physical activity programs are unimportant. Far from it. For many Wellspring alumni, school-based activities provide a very useful structure to ensure that new weight controllers successfully achieve their activity goals of 10,000 steps per day. And another new study indicates that school-based programs have other benefits. The researchers reviewed data from 26 studies of physical activity promotion programs in schools in Australia, South America, Europe and North America and found that while these programs had no impact on helping children lose weight, they were moderately successful at improving overall fitness and reducing blood cholesterol levels.

We are suggesting, however, that looking to your child’s school as a culprit or solution for your child’s weight is probably unrealistic. It would be more beneficial to focus on how your child’s weight may be affecting his or her academic performance, and to take independent steps to help your child return to a healthy weight.