02/06/2014 08:59 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

The Surprising Connection Between Kids' Health and Academic Achievement: What Parents Can Do to Ensure All Kids Succeed

Co-authored by Otha Thornton

American children's academic performance in relation to their global peers is concerning. As mentioned previously, a recent study from OECD Programme for International Student Assessment noted the U.S. is 17th in reading, 21st in science and 26th in math. The drive for academic achievement can often overshadow child's health and wellness, with schools cutting valuable PE class or minutes at the lunch hour to squeeze in more instruction time, yet research shows that student health ultimately impacts learning and behavior. Our current approach to education may undermine the benefits physical activity and good nutrition can contribute to a child's ability to learn and thrive. Parents can champion the "learning connection" between healthy students and improved academic achievement, and lead the way in their communities to ensure kids get the physical activity and proper nutrition needed for success in the classroom.

It's clear we need real solutions to improve nutrition and physical activity in our schools. Currently, less than half of youth meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommendation of at least 60 minutes of daily vigorous- to moderate-intensity physical activity. The majority of children and adolescents today spend most of their day sitting in classrooms and a big part of their free time engaged in sedentary activities -- almost half of all students do not attend physical education classes in an average school week.

On a daily basis, only about half of the students who eat school lunch eat school breakfast; with many coming to school with an empty stomach. Additionally, one in five children lives in food-insecure households where families do not have consistent access to adequate food. For these students, school meal programs -- including school breakfast -- can be a lifeline, and may be the only nutritionally adequate meal(s) they get on some days.

The newly-published feature article in Nutrition Today, authored by Dayle Hayes, MS, RD et al., and funded through an educational grant from Nike, highlights the proceedings from the 2012 GENYOUth Nutrition + Physical Activity Learning Connection Summit, which examined the growing body of evidence on the association of physical activity, school-based physical education, school breakfast consumption and nutrition with learning. Participants including health, education, physical fitness, business and student leaders were inspired to develop realistic approaches to bring the learning connection to life for schools, including:

  • Spread the word about the issue and the importance of the learning connection
  • Grow support for school breakfast, including alternate options such as breakfast in the classroom, grab-n-go
  • Build grassroots efforts to improve physical activity, physical education and healthy eating in schools by engaging vocal support from students, parents, school administrators and teachers

So, What Can Parents Do?

  • Get the facts: Read the parent brief based on GENYOUth Foundation's The Wellness Impact Report, co-authored with National Dairy Council, American College of Sports Medicine and the American School Health Association.
  • Get some help: Programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 (FUTP 60), the nation's largest for-youth, by-youth school wellness program, are available at no cost to schools and empower your kids to actually lead healthy changes in their schools. FUTP 60 also provides grants to schools who are trying to make positive healthy changes.
  • Be a champion: Schools need champions for physical activity and nutrition. You can learn more about ways to help your school become an active school at
  • Get moving!: Work with your local PTA to share your ideas on creating healthy changes at your child's school a reality.

The science is now beyond doubt: better nourished, physically active kids learn more and perform better at test time and beyond. Join us in taking action to help create a culture of wellness in schools across America.

Otha Thornton is president of National PTA, a nonprofit association dedicated to being a powerful voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities and a strong advocate for public education. In addition to leading National PTA, Thornton is a senior operations analyst with General Dynamics and a retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel.

Alexis Glick is the CEO of GENYOUth a health and wellness nonprofit dedicated to improving nutrition and physical activity in US schools by bringing funds and resources to bear in the school building and empowering youth to lead change. Alexis also serves on the Board of Directors for Cumulus Media, and was previously the VP of Business News for FOX Business Network where she anchored "Money for Breakfast" and "The Opening Bell."