Healthy Students Are Better Students

New report illustrates "The Wellness Impact" of good nutrition and physical activity

As schools prepare for standardized testing this spring, school leaders, teachers and parents are focused on ensuring students are prepared to do their best. Research shows that regular access to better nutrition — starting with breakfast — coupled with increased opportunities for physical activity may help students reach their potential throughout the school year, which may lead to better performance at testing time and beyond.

A report issued today, The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success Through Healthy School Environments, reinforces the "learning connection" — the crucial link between quality nutrition, physical activity and academic performance. The report was released by the GENYOUth Foundation, National Dairy Council (NDC), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American School Health Association (ASHA).

Research on physical activity and obesity sheds new light on this learning connection. "Brain imaging shows that children experience improved cognitive function and higher academic achievement after just 20 minutes of physical activity," said Dr. Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Combining the many benefits of physical activity with good nutrition habits that support healthy weight can have a powerful impact on a child's potential to learn."

Other findings in The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success Through Healthy School Environments suggest:

  • -More than half (62 percent) of all teens say they do not eat breakfast every day of the week.
  • -Breakfast eaters have better attention and memory than breakfast skippers.
  • -Three-in-four high school students aren't active for the recommended 60 minutes each day.
  • -Students who were more active during school performed better on standardized tests for reading, math and spelling.

"Poor nutrition, inactivity and unhealthy weight not only lead to poor academic achievement in children, but also create hard costs for individuals, schools and society at large," said Dr. David Satcher, 16th US Surgeon General and director of The Satcher Health Leadership Institute. "These costs include spiraling health-care expenses, lower productivity and a future workforce unprepared for success. We must find solutions to improve nutrition and physical activity for our society's future well-being — and it must start in our homes and schools."

"With American kids spending 2,000 hours in school each year, we know in-school wellness policies can help build healthy habits and minds," added Jean H. Ragalie, RD, president of National Dairy Council. "Breakfast is a key place to start. School breakfast programs offering nutrient-rich foods — such as low-fat and fat-free dairy, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins — may be just as important as books in impacting children's learning positively."

Across the US, schools face tremendous challenges to meet economic, health and academic demands. Many schools lack the funds to execute school wellness policies or to start breakfast programs. And as pressures mount to improve standardized test scores, many districts are shortening or eliminating opportunities for physical activity, such as recess and physical education (PE) classes.

Proven school wellness programs such as Fuel Up to Play 60 — a program founded by National Dairy Council and the National Football League (NFL), in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) — encourages students to take charge in making small, everyday changes toward a healthy lifestyle at school. In partnership with GENYOUth, Fuel Up to Play 60 has provided schools with more than $10 million in grants to help develop healthy in-school initiatives ranging from breakfast programs to walking clubs. Administrators and teachers have shared success stories indicating improved attention spans and increased attendance as a result of participating in Fuel Up to Play 60. 

"We know schools are the focal point in the movement to improve child health and wellness, but they cannot act alone. We are calling on the broader community, including business leaders, food and beverage companies, health professionals, community organizers, parents and students to help challenge the status quo by creating and sustaining opportunities for good nutrition and physical activity in schools," said Alexis Glick, CEO of  GENYOUth. "We now have a better understanding than ever of the relationship between nutrition and physical activity and academic performance. This knowledge should motivate all of us to do everything in our power to create meaningful change for youth in schools." 

In addition to the efforts of GENYOUth, NDC, ACSM and ASHA, leaders in the child health and wellness arena including the new Let's Move! Active Schools initiative and Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign, which is fighting to end childhood hunger, are taking action on the learning connection to advance students' health, well-being and academic achievement.

Everyone from community leaders to parents can work together to champion for improved child health and wellness in schools. To read the full report and get involved, visit