Schools Need to Prioritize Addressing Obesity in 2015

During this time of year, many adults are making New Year's Resolutions to exercise more and eat a healthier diet. We also need to make a national resolution to address America's childhood obesity problem. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years. From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of obese children aged 6-11 rose from 7% to 18% and obese adolescents aged 12-19 rose from 5% to 18%. These numbers reflect a frightening portrait of students in the United States that I, Dr. Padilla, have seen on a daily basis as an educator for more than a decade and now as the superintendent of a large school district in New York. We both believe schools can help solve this epidemic.

While educators cannot control what students do when they are home, they can still influence students' lives in a positive way since outside of home life, children spend most of their time in schools. According to Harvard University's School of Public Health, schools are the foundation to lifelong good health.  We believe schools can build that foundation through increased exercise and improved nutrition offerings.

First, exercise. Most school districts mandate only one or two gym periods per week for students. This is not an adequate response to the childhood obesity epidemic nor does it foster healthy exercise habits. Given how a plethora of electronics and increased safety concerns in many neighborhoods have made students more sedentary, drastically more physical exercise is needed. Research like the large-scale study of 12,000 school children in Nebraska showed that exercise has numerous positive social effects on students, from increased emotional well-being to improved self-efficacy. It also improves students' mental health and reduces high blood pressure.

Schools can help improve students' health by increasing the number of fitness periods they attend per week, including before, during and after school. The benefits can be huge. For example, in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey found that schools that implement a "zero hour" fitness classes before the academic day see tremendous improvements in academics and behavior of the miniature scholars. Further, students gain stronger muscles, improved body compositions, improved academic performance, better intake of water, and the like.

Student's nutrition is another area where schools can have an impact. Research shows the typical school lunch is comprised of highly processed sugary foods and sugary drinks lacking in rich nutritional value. This is particularly bad because many students lack healthier options outside of school. Children in low-income communities - particularly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods - often live in food deserts, meaning they do not have access to healthy food options in their communities.

Improving their nutrition not only helps their bodies but their minds. Policies like the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 have given rise to nutritional programs that show a healthy diet in school can improve cognitive function. Through this act, schools that provided breakfast in the classroom and increased the access to healthier meals have seen an increase in student attendance and improved academic achievement. After all, if students are hungry, sick and/or not present in school, how can they be educated? Additionally, a healthy diet can help students with ADHD, particularly when it helps them avoid food colorings and excess sugar intake while increasing the amount of omega 3 fatty acids and fermented foods, such as kimchi and kefir, in their diets.  

One place to start improving nutrition is school drinks. School districts should ensure that all sugary drinks (especially those containing high fructose corn syrup) sold in vending machines are replaced with water, coconut water, almond, coconut milks, and 100% natural juices. Another scenario would be to establish a smoothie teaching station in the lunchroom where students can learn how to create their own concoction with fruits, vegetables, and tasty, nutrient dense foods such as chia seeds and nut butters. Nutribullet, a major blender company, recently did this with students of University High School in Los Angeles. The UNI Project had a tremendous impact on the health and nutritional education of students. Another promising practice is providing students with a backpack filled with food for the weekend which several urban districts in New York are doing through a federally funded program.

School districts are under an enormous amount of pressure to provide a plethora of programs to meet state mandates and in many areas that has resulted in less exercise time. They're also facing tight budgets that can make improving nutrition harder. While these concerns are real, students' success will be limited if they are unhealthy, lack mental stamina, and cannot release stress through exercise. And for schools with tight budgets, grants, parents, and local community organizing may be willing to give donations.

Every parent's goal in 2015 and beyond should be for his or her progeny to succeed in school and become successful in life. By the sheer nature of how much time students spend in school, educators are the main people who can assist parents with that goal. More opportunities to exercise and have a healthy diet at school will be the most effective methods for eliminating obesity as we know it.