The Learning Connection: How Nutrition and Physical Activity Help Students Become Better Learners

“The content was the best I have ever received in 18 years in physical education. I have been to our state conferences in PE where I haven’t gotten as much quality information as I got today. Great, great job.”

“I loved the two guest speakers, both gentlemen had great delivery and pertinent information. It was especially excellent for me to hear Dr. Pangrazi….since he wrote my college textbook for physical education.”

“I loved the mix of research/best practices and the real life experiences shared by the panel.”

“I appreciated getting the knowledge and proof of the correlation of nutrition and physical activity with academic achievement.”

“It was good to hear the science behind nutrition. It makes it easier to sell this to other teachers.”

“It is increasingly rare that I am able to attend professional development that has specific relevance to physical education—great to know there are so many highly engaged professionals in PE willing to go to greater lengths to improve their students’ lives.”

These are just a few of the many positive comments received on evaluations from the professional development opportunity hosted by OCM BOCES on September 21st, The Learning Connection: How Nutrition and Physical Activity Help Students Become Better Learners. The event was a collaboration between Healthy Schools NY (HSNY) programs at OCM and OHM BOCES, the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Fuel Up to Play 60, and GOPHER Sport. As our HSNY grant was due to end on September 30th, my colleagues and I wanted to close this five-year chapter on a high note. Our goal was to arm our regional school districts with as much research and practical information as possible to sustain their preexisting efforts in the wellness realm or to jump start their efforts if they were still in the “we-really-should-be-doing-more-but-we-don’t-know-where-to-start” phase. By all accounts, we succeeded!

Our featured speakers, Drs. Robert Murray and Robert Pangrazi (referred to as ‘the Bobs’), both presented on the connection between student health and learning readiness with Dr. Murray’s focus being on nutrition and Dr. Pangrazi’s on physical activity. Both Bobs were extremely engaging and exceeded participants’ expectations in regard to the relevance of the research shared: how severe stress (e.g. hunger and malnutrition) impacts brain health; how quality nutrition improves classroom behavior, thinking, memory and test scores; and why “breakfast science” is so important. The following research highlights from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Activity and Academic Performance Report* were the topic of much discussion:

  • Review of 50 studies was conducted: a total of 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance were studied
  • More than half (50.5%) of all associations were positive
  • Attention span, classroom behavior/conduct and achievement test scores positively correlated with physical activity
  • Time for physical activity does not negatively impact academic performance.

*The Association between School-based Physical Activity, including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. (2010). USDHHS, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

And, from the CDC Health & Academic Achievement Report (2014):

  • Active students have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance & classroom behavior (6 studies)
  • Time spent in recess positively affects students cognitive performance and classroom behaviors (5 studies)
  • Brief classroom activity breaks improve educational outcomes including standardized test scores (7 studies)

It’s hard to argue a case against increasing opportunities for more physical activity and better nutrition after the Bobs’ presentations. And, yet, a common theme heard during the day was one of frustration that while many school staff and decision-makers probably have a general understanding of this learning connection, very few measures have been taken to reflect it in school-wide practices on a consistent basis (e.g. recess). While there are individual building champions who find ways to incorporate more physical activity and nutrition into their curricula, the learning connection concept has yet to become the foundation on which educational and administrative decisions are made. So, if the learning connection is truly understood by school personnel, and there still is a lack of action to implement changes, I would posit that this reported lack of action may stem from (assumed) insufficient resources to make impactful changes: time, energy, money and staff to lead the charge. Attempting to make meaningful, sustainable changes—ones that challenge our personal biases, time-honored traditions, and ruffle the feathers of parents and community members, I might add—is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work. It can be overwhelming. And, it typically falls on the shoulders of one or two motivated individuals within each school. We all mean well, but who has the time or energy to change a culture? And who has an extra few thousand dollars lying around to buy new recess equipment, games, etc.?

Thus, the purpose of “the panel.” We ended the day with discussion and mini-presentations by staff from Syracuse, Liverpool, Tully and Waterville school districts who shared nutrition and physical activity success stories, low/no cost implementation ideas and tips for replication. Participants heard repeatedly that they did not need to overwhelm themselves by trying to reinvent the wheel or take on huge fundraising efforts to be able to afford new resources. They learned about the importance and necessity (per the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010) of wellness councils to brainstorm ideas and share the work load. They also heard how some schools focused on the importance of shifting perceptions about physical activity and nutrition by using points of decision prompts. And, the consistent message relayed by all speakers was to start small! Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Incremental changes presented in a positive light, consistent monitoring of new practices and the willingness to go back to the drawing board (if needed) are the keys to success. Oh, and a little fun helps as well!

Having worked very closely over the years with PE and health teachers, food service directors and nurses, I have come to understand that some of these professionals do not feel particularly relevant in the greater academic context of their districts. Our planning team was thrilled to be able to give back to these staff members by providing them with a meaningful PD experience. Evaluation responses with well-articulated intentions indicate that they are empowered and better prepared to influence their districts to make sustainable changes that will potentially have a positive impact on the health and academic success of students.

Be well,

Program Coordinator, School Wellness


P.S. Even though the HSNY grant is now over, OCM BOCES now offers a Health and Wellness School Services CoSer. For more information, please contact Penny Williams at 433-2609.

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