First Lady Michelle Obama is passionate about her goal to ensure that all children in America live healthy active lives and reach their full potential. She knows from firsthand experience the importance of good nutrition and consistent physical activity, not only for herself but for her kids. As a chef and someone who is passionate about physical activity, I know the countless benefits of healthy eating and healthy living – reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, longer lifespan, improved fitness. Chances are you’re familiar with those as well.
But the benefits of a healthy lifestyle aren’t just physical – exercise and good nutrition have also been shown to improve children’s academic performance.
Poor nutrition is associated with lower academic achievement, including shortened attention span, fatigue, and difficulty with concentration. Emerging research shows overall diet quality is linked to classroom performance. A 2008 study in the Journal of School Health found that elementary students who consumed more fruits and vegetables did better on standardized English tests.
Eating a healthy breakfast has also been shown to positively affect cognitive traits such as memory and recall. Children who participate in the federal School Breakfast Program show improved daily attendance, class participation, and test scores.
Making sure kids get the nutrition they need to maximize their full learning potential is one of the key reasons why chefs across the nation are working with schools to serve healthy – and tasty – foods to students. Over a thousand chefs from Oregon to New Hampshire are participating in the “Chefs Move to Schools
” program, which pairs chefs and schools to create healthy meals, while teaching children important nutrition and culinary lessons to last a lifetime. We are also working with the "Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools
" coalition, which is working to bring 6,000 salad bars to schools over the next three years to help schools serve more fruits and vegetables.
Physical activity also has a strong impact on students’ academic performance. The CDC recently conducted a comprehensive review of over 12 years of research studies and found substantial evidence that physical activity helps improve numerous measures of academic success. Two studies on extracurricular physical activity even found that sports programs can help reduce dropout rates. Physical education class is the most important opportunity for children to engage in physical activity. Among the benefits of physical education were better math test scores, stronger cognitive skills, and higher English and language standardized test scores. Increased time in physical education also improves academic behaviors, including concentration and attention in class.
As it turns out, recess is more than just a time for kids to have fun. It’s also a vital opportunity for them to be active. Every one of the recess-related studies reviewed by the CDC showed that students who get the chance to have an active recess break demonstrate improved classroom performance.
Over the years, as school budgets have gotten tighter, many schools have chosen academic studies over physical activity and nutrition. As the First Lady has said, this is a false choice. It has become clear that nutrition and activity can improve the academic performance of students. Our young people need good nutrition and physical activity every day, as well as great academic studies to thrive in the 21st century. We applaud the thousands of schools around the country who are finding innovative ways to balance these priorities in such difficult times.
The writing is on the chalkboard – healthy eating and physical activity are vital ingredients for kids to thrive, at school and into the future.
Sam Kass is the Assistant White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives.