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Journal Issue: Childhood Obesity Volume 16 Number 1 Spring 2006

The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
Mary Story Karen M. Kaphingst Simone French

Are Obesity, Nutrition, and Physical Activity Linked with School Performance?

Some observers have noted a worrisome correlation between weight problems and poor academic achievement.4 One research study found that severely overweight children and adolescents are four times more likely than their healthy-weight peers to report “impaired school functioning.” Overweight children are also more likely to have abnormal scores on the Child Behavior Checklist (a commonly used measure of children's behavior problems) and are twice as likely to be placed in special education and remedial classes than are children who are not overweight.5  A study involving 11,192 kindergartners found that overweight children had significantly lower math and reading test scores at the beginning of the year than did their healthy-weight peers and that these differences persisted into first grade.6  But such findings must be interpreted with caution. Because overweight is linked with poor academic performance does not mean that it causes poor performance. Low academic achievement can have many underlying causes, including low socioeconomic status, lower parental education, poor nutrition, and parental depression. Overweight should be considered a marker for poor academic performance and not the cause itself.

Overweight can impair school performance in many ways, including health-related absenteeism.7  Among the medical conditions linked with overweight in school-aged children are asthma, joint problems, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, and sleep apnea.8  Social problems—such as being teased or bullied—loneliness, or low self-esteem can also affect how well children do in school.9

Although the evidence that child obesity affects school performance is limited, nutrition clearly affects academic performance. Poor nutritional status and hunger interfere with cognitive function and are associated with lower academic achievement. Iron deficiency is linked to shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue, and difficulty with concentration.10 A recent review of studies of breakfast habits and nutritional status in children and adolescents found that breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function related to memory, test grades, and school attendance.11  Studies have also found that children participating in the federal School Breakfast Program show increases in daily attendance, class participation, and academic test scores and decreases in tardiness.12

Research has also recently begun to elucidate the relationship between physical activity and student performance at school. Among the findings are that physical activity programs help school-aged children develop social skills, improve mental health, and reduce risk-taking behaviors.13  Evidence also suggests that short-term cognitive benefits of physical activity during the school day adequately compensate for time spent away from other academic areas.14  This evidence suggests that efforts to improve nutrition and increase physical activity in school may have the twin benefits of reducing obesity and improving the academic performance of all children, whether they are at risk of obesity or not.