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Exercise plus breakfast = kids ready to learn?

Can something as simple as 10 to 15 minutes of daily physical activity in the classroom combined with eating breakfast on school days translate into better health and better grades for elementary children?

Preliminary results from a Miami study conducted in partnership with Winton Forest Elementary School in suburban Cincinnati are promising, say principal Dave Schuler and Jeffrey A. Potteiger and Benjamin Sibley (both physical education, health and sport studies).

Beginning this fall, all 370 youngsters at the school have been served a free breakfast, typically cereal with milk, juice and crackers, before classes begin. Cost to the Winton district is minimal because many students qualify for free or reduced cost meals.

Each morning the students also spend 10 to 15 minutes exercising, doing things like jumping rope, line dancing or walking the fitness track. “They're moving, they're sweating and breathing hard,” says Potteiger.

The results after only three months show that tardiness is down by approximately 50 percent, from 315 late arrivals in 2004 to 158 during the same period in 2005.

Furthermore, attendance is up, from 96.2 percent in 2004 to 97.4 percent in 2005 and office referrals for discipline are down from 111 in 2004 to 102 in 2005 with fewer serious incidents involved.

“It's a positive way to start the day,” says Principal Shuler, explaining that students look forward to the daily exercise activities. “The program is also a good way for students and teachers to build rapport.” Having a regular exercise and breakfast program also provides a consistent way to start the day for youngsters whose morning home routines vary considerably, says Shuler.

Initial results seem to indicate that school-based exercise and nutrition impact two of the biggest issues facing children today - their health and their academic performance.

“If we can develop sound nutrition and exercise programs it will go a long way in battling the childhood obesity epidemic,” Potteiger says. “By changing the school environment we should be able to help change student behaviors.”

There are few studies that provide empirical evidence as to how physical activity, or its lack thereof, impacts classroom learning. More time is needed to assess this program's influence on academics, but Potteiger is cautiously optimistic that the improvement in attendance will translate into higher achievement scores.

Because of the nationwide emphasis on testing and educational accountability such verifiable results will be important if other schools are to adopt similar programs.

“We can include physical activity in the school day without hurting academics. In fact, the research suggests it will probably help,” says Sibley, an assistant professor of PHS at Miami. “Asking young children to sit quietly for hours on end is about the most unnatural thing you could do to them. Physical activity during the school day puts them in a state where they can learn.”

Potteiger has a role in promoting the importance of physical exercise nationwide as editor of the American College of Sports Medicine's “Fit Society” newsletter and serving on several ACSM advisory and policy boards and councils.

“What we've done over the years is take exercise and physical activity - and fun - out of being a kid, particularly in our elementary schools. We've focused so much on academic performance that we've forgotten to look at the total package: Is the child healthy and happy and is he or she prepared to learn?” he asks.

Potteiger recommends concerned parents begin to implement good exercise and nutrition habits now. If there were only two things he would recommend all parents do it would be:

• Make your child breakfast each day. Even if it's just putting out cereal or a container of yogurt or handing your child a banana, get him or her to eat something in the morning.

• Turn off the television. Encourage your child to be active. “I realize it's a lot easier to say 'why don't you watch TV while I make dinner,' but we need to resist that temptation and provide the opportunities for physical activity.”

Like many research efforts at Miami, undergraduates are part of the research team at Winton Forest Elementary.

Ten undergrads - all exercise science majors or students in the physical education teacher licensure program - are working side by side their professors to collect data. They're weighing each of the students in the breakfast/exercise program, giving them fitness surveys and checking body composition.

While the Miami volunteers are receiving one internship credit for their efforts, they're also happy for the opportunity to put theory and book learning about health and fitness into practice. There's a sense among them that they're making a difference.

Take Leslie Clark, a sophomore from North Royalton, whose goal is to become a physical therapist. “It's a good feeling going down there,” she says. “Hopefully the kids will start learning the importance of fitness, and it will affect them the rest of their lives.”

Other students working on the project include Stephanie Polsinelli, Marisa Catignani, Jennifer Peyton, Zach Hoock, Jayme Price, Josh Perry, Katie Wehri, Lauren Schaetzle and Tyler Vordenberg.

Date Published: 12/08/2005
Volume: 25   Number: 18

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