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School Changes Could Help Kids Be More Active, Eat Better

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Environmental and policy changes at schools might help kids become more physically active and eat better, but important hurdles must be overcome to make these changes a reality, new research suggests.

A team of California researchers worked with school personnel, parents and students at 12 middle schools in San Diego County to make “structural” changes designed to increase students’ physical activity and decrease their saturated dietary fat intake over a two-year period.

The changes included helping schools alter their approaches to physical education and giving students opportunities to increase physical activity before, during and after school. They also included working with schools to offer low-fat foods in school cafeterias and school stores and encouraging students to bring low-fat lunches from home. No classroom health education was offered so that the effects of environmental changes could be clearly seen.

Baseline information was gathered in the spring of 1997 and changes were made during the following two school years. To analyze the results, the researchers observed students’ physical activity during physical education classes; observed physical activity before school, during lunch and after school on school grounds; tracked dietary fat purchased from school sources or brought from home; and randomly polled students about their physical activities and dietary fat intake.

The environmental and policy changes resulted in some positive effects for boys but not for girls. Boys’ physical activity at school increased and their body mass index decreased. No changes were observed in students’ overall dietary fat intake, however.

“Environmental and policy interventions appear to have had important effects on physical activity and weight control for boys,” write James F. Sallis, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University, and colleagues.

“All of us have a responsibility to make schools a healthful environment for all students,” Sallis notes, “and this study shows we can make some progress in that direction.”

The reasons for the lack of changes in girls’ physical activity were not clear, they say. Therefore, more research is needed to find ways to tailor activity offerings, instructional methods and promotional strategies to middle school girls.

“Environmental approaches to school health promotion are rarely evaluated, so it is important to consider factors that led to the mixed results,” Sallis and colleagues write.

Despite the mixed results, based on their own and others’ research the investigators believe that environmental and policy changes hold promise for improving kids’ health and therefore merit further consideration.

For example, more attention could be given to removing financial incentives for school food services to sell less-than-healthful foods. “Schools need to make sure PE is particularly attractive for girls,” Sallis says, “but it is important to provide more programs and supervision for physical activity throughout the school day.”

He adds, “As we get better at creating healthier environments at schools, health educational programs are expected to work even better. But we still have a long way to go before schools make healthy eating and physical activity the easy choices in schools.”

Interest in school health education efforts has expanded as the number of overweight children and children with type 2 diabetes has grown.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and is published in the March-April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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