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Healthy Students Are Better Learners

by Adrienne Stith Butler, Clinical and Research Psychologist
posted Wednesday March 1, 2017 1:30 pm

We all know that it is important to be healthy - to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, consume less junk and processed foods, move more, and sit less. Why? So that we can have strong and healthy bodies. So that we can feel good, look good, avoid diseases like diabetes and heart disease (1), have fewer aches and pains, and hopefully increase our chances for living a long life. Healthy behaviors are also important for our brains. Scientific studies have consistently shown that healthy diets and physical exercise can boost memory and may help prevent cognitive decline and dementia (1,2,3).

Eating and Physical Activity: Connection to Achievement

It is critically important for families, communities, and the Nation to promote the health of children and adolescents. The health of students is clearly linked to academic achievement and we will depend on the next generation to successfully lead the Nation and carry out its work. The First Lady Michelle Obama, said:

"The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake." (4)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the Nation's health protection agency) recently reviewed what scientific studies say about the effect of student eating behaviors and physical exercise on academic achievement (5). Academic achievement was defined as 1. Academic performance (class grades, standardized test scores, and rates of graduation), 2. Education behavior (attendance, dropout rates, behavior problems at school), and 3. Cognitive skills and attitudes (concentration, memory, mood). They found that students who did not eat breakfast had poorer attention, alertness, memory, and problem solving abilities. Those that participated in a nationally sponsored school breakfast program had increased grades and test scores, improved memory, and decreased absences from school. Other studies revealed that not eating sufficient amounts of certain foods (particularly vegetables, fruits, and dairy products) was associated with lower grades.

The news is also encouraging for the effects of physical activity (5,6). Students who are physically active, generally speaking, have better memory, concentration, grades, and attendance at school. Students who participate in extracurricular physical activities have higher grades, lower drop-out rates, and fewer behavior problems.

What Can We Do to Support Kids' Healthy Eating and Physical Activity?

It is clear that healthy student are better learners on all levels. Here are some things that parents and community members, schools, and students can do to encourage healthy behaviors and create healthy environment for kids (5):

Parents and community members:

  • Help schools implement school wellness policies that address physical and nutrition education, and the types of food and beverages that are sold in schools.
  • Join the PTA, school health advisory council, school wellness council, or other groups that support and advocate for healthy school environments. Chesterfield County has established a School Health Advisory Board that helps the school board develop health policy for schools. The advisory board includes parents, students, health professionals, educators, and others (7).
  • Support schools by attending and volunteering at school-sponsored activities and events on health topics.


  • Create professional development opportunities for teachers and staff on the impact of healthy eating and physical activity.
  • Include health education programs on healthy eating and physical activity.
  • Include measures of health when evaluating school outcomes and determining accountability.


  • Learn how a healthy diet and physical activity can help you be a better student.
  • Think of activities to have at school that are related to physical education and incorporate healthy eating. Share those ideas with teachers and school administrators.
  • Be active in any school, district, or state committees or advisory councils that are related to promoting healthy school environments for students.

For more Information and Resources:

For more information about student health and academic achievement, you can visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's website on health and academics. Here you can find articles, podcasts, and statistics.


Miriam Reiner, Christina Niermann, Darko Jekauc and Alexander Woll. 2013. Long-term health benefits of physical activity • a systematic review of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health. 13:813.

Ondine van de Rest, Agnes AM Berendsen, Annemein Haveman-Nies, and Lisette de Groot. 2015. Dietary patterns, cognitive decline, and dementia: A systematic review. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal. 6:154-168

Harvard Health Publications. 2012. Boost your memory by eating right. Harvard Women's Health Watch.

The White House, Office of the First Lady. 2010. First Lady Michelle Obama Launches Let's Move: America's Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Health and Academic Achievement.

Caitlin Lees and Jessica Hopkins. 2013. Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function in children: A systematic review of randomized control trials. Preventing Chronic Disease,10.

Chesterfield County School Board. Advisory Committees to the School Board.

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