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children-runningWith the rise of electronic media, U.S. kids are spending more time glued to a screen and less time engaged in physical activity—a trend that could have far-reaching implications when it comes to their overall health. But adding just an hour of exercise each day can make a big difference, and not just for a healthy body but for a healthy mind.

In a recent study funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, researchers from the University of Illinois followed more than 220 schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 9, half of whom were enrolled in an after-school program with a high level of physical activity while the others remained on a wait list. The 2-hour program included about 70 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, which researchers say resulted in big “brain gains” for those enrolled.

The kids who attended the weekday program showed significant improvement in a range of cognitive skills: memory, concentration, the ability to focus and ignore distractions, and multi-tasking (being able to switch back and forth from one task to the next). These so-called “executive functions” have been linked to fewer conduct problems and less risky behavior in the adolescent and teenage years.

“I think these are the hardest evidence we have available that time spent in physical activities, which would include physical education and recess, not only doesn’t detract from academic goals, but it might enhance academic performance,” said lead researcher Charles Hillman. He and his colleagues encourage schools to consider providing more opportunities for physical activity and parents to encourage regular exercise. According to the study results, the children in the after-school program also had smaller gains in body mass index (BMI).

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kids-cafeteriaJust two years after new federal nutrition standards went into effect requiring U.S. schools to provide more healthful lunch options, a study conducted by the National School Nutrition Association reveals the dismal truth: most children aren’t making the switch. In fact, much of the healthier food is being tossed in the trash.

The National School Lunch Program provides meals for more than 30 million schoolchildren nationwide, but according to the study 81.2 percent of schools surveyed said they saw an increase in the amount of food being thrown away by students since the new standards took effect. That amounts to nearly 4 million dollars a day in wasted food, say researchers at Cornell University and Brigham Young University.

As part of the new standards, schools are now required to provide more fruits and vegetables, but just making healthy choices available may not be enough. “The concept is just wonderful—but in fact, if a student is only going to take it and then discard it—it’s going to be a waste,” said one school nutritionist.

Indeed, just putting healthy foods in front of kids is not a solution. Parents can help by setting the example at home and encouraging a healthy diet and lifestyle habits early on. Talking to kids about choosing the right foods (and why) as well as the importance of physical activity and a healthy body weight can have an impact on the choices they make in the school lunchroom. Getting them involved in the process of preparing and cooking dinner can also have lasting benefits.

It comes down to this: when kids see parents making healthier choices, they will want to do the same. Keep junk food out of the house, and encourage healthy snacking on low-sugar fruits, non-starchy veggies, dairy products, healthy fats and protein. That way, they’ll be more inclined to seek out those foods in the cafeteria.

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