Why Focus on School Wellness?

A recent report published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, entitled Preventing Childhood Obesity, came to the conclusion that it is “critically important” that the school environment support healthy eating and physical activity behaviors among students as one strategy for confronting the childhood obesity epidemic (Koplan, Liverman & Kraak 2005). Yet the lack of programs that support regular physical activity and proper nutrition in the current school landscape continues to be disturbing to many childhood experts.

For example, recess and physical education (PE) programs are constantly at risk of being cut from school curricula in order to fit in more classroom instructional time to prepare for standardized testing. One report found that only 8% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle schools and 5.8% of high schools provide daily PE during the school year for students in all grades (Kolbe, Kann & Brener 2001). In a recent survey of American youth, just over one-third of high-school students reported attending daily PE classes by the time they reached their senior year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2006).

And the problem isn’t exclusive to teenagers; younger kids are also seeing less and less play time at school. According to a recent report called Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005 just 8 out of every 10 elementary schools have daily recess, with 25 minutes being the average amount of play time offered (Parsad & Lewis 2006). Despite its importance, recess is often on the chopping block as schools struggle to fit more academic requirements into the day.

There is also ongoing concern about the junk foods sold in schools. In an attempt to compensate for dwindling budgets and overcrowded classrooms, many schools have abandoned balanced, home-cooked meals and instead offer only “grab and go” calorie-dense and nutrient-poor packaged items—what many see as a sorry reflection of the nation’s eating habits as a whole. Nationally, 83% of elementary, 97% of middle and 99% of high schools sell foods and beverages out of vending machines, school stores or à la carte settings (Government Accountability Office 2005). Not surprisingly, soft drinks, chips and candy are the items most commonly sold in our schools (Wechsler et al. 2001).

Fortunately, the times are changing—or at least improving. In fact, the recent federal mandate for local school wellness policies requires schools to set goals for nutrition and physical activity. This presents an extraordinary opportunity for both parents and health and fitness professionals to contribute to creating and sustaining school environments that promote student health.

Category : Wellness Coaching / Wellness Education