Good Nutrition & Fitness for Students K-12

Promoting a Lifetime of Health & Wellness

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that rates of obesity have more than tripled since the 1970s, with a 2016 report finding that 1 in 5 kids aged 6 to 19 is classified as obese. Helping children lead healthy lives requires focus in two critical areas: nutrition and physical exercise. Parents, students, teachers and community members can find actionable and concrete information in this guide related to common challenges faced, how to overcome them, and where to seek help to ensure your child can live life to the fullest and healthiest.

Nutrition Challenges and How to Conquer Them

Living in a food desert.

According to the website State of Obesity, nearly 30 million Americans live in areas considered food deserts — meaning that a grocery store is more than one mile away in an urban area and 10 miles away in a rural area. Families without access to proper transportation who live in food deserts often rely on gas stations and convenience stores to supply food — many of which don't offer a substantial number of healthy options. Increasingly, programs exist to help individuals gain access to food. Options such as Brandless, Amazon Fresh and Google Express provide fresh, nutritious foods and offer free shipping and/or delivery on orders above a certain amount.

Earning a low income.

While individuals considered low income spend a higher percentage of their earnings on food, they spend fewer dollars when compared to individuals who make higher incomes, according to data collected by State of Obesity. Those below the poverty line spend $35 per person, per week on food (16.1 percent of their income) while those above the poverty line spend $50 per person, per week (13.2 percent of their income). The government provides the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for qualifying individuals to help lessen the monetary burden of feeding children nutritious foods. Programs such as Dare to Care also offer food banks to help provide nutritious meals to children.

Stress at home.

According to the Mayo Clinic, psychological factors such as parent or family stress can often cause children to be overweight, as they use food as a coping mechanism. This can also happen if the child is being bullied at school. Recognizing the root cause of your child's overeating is important in establishing healthier habits in the long run. If the child won't talk to a parent or teacher, consider seeing if they will speak with the school nurse or counselor about what could be causing them to overeat.

Lack of sleep.

A 2017 study in the National Journal of Obesity found that children who got 10.7 or more hours of sleep per night were far less likely to be obese, compared to those who slept 10.4 hours or less per night. In addition to lower levels of appetite-regulating hormones being present, fatigued children also ate and drank more sugar-laden foods and ingested fewer fruits and vegetables than those who got enough rest. Doctors recommend 10-13 hours of sleep for children aged 3 to 5 and nine to 12 hours per night for those aged 6 and above.

Vending machines offering sub-standard nutrition.

A study by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that approximately 83 percent of all schools had vending machines offering foods and drinks with limited nutritional value. As students shuffle between classes and take advantage of breaks and lunchtime, they are more likely to purchase candy, sodas or other empty-calorie snacks if made available to them. Some students even choose to rely on vending machine food rather than choosing healthier options at lunch. School administrators can work to remove vending machines and make healthier lunch options more appealing to students. Some parents may also decide to pack their child's lunch and provide healthy yet fun snacks.

A misunderstanding of which foods are actually healthy.

Health-conscious groups have called into question the problem of added sugars, high sodium and lack of nutrients in a typical school meal. In fact, some common sense rules have been broken over the years to serve kids what they want, even if it's not as healthy as it could be. An example: for the purposes of school lunches, tomato paste is considered a vegetable — making pizza a viable lunch option for millions of children each day. Pizza is great once in awhile as a treat, but using it as a full-meal option on a daily basis for growing bodies is unhealthy.

Falling through the cracks.

Though the National School Lunch Program offers free and reduced lunches to 30.4 million students in public and private schools each year, some families fall through the cracks. They may earn too much income to qualify for subsidies, but don't make enough to afford the ever-increasing lunch prices. The result is often a student packing a lunch that doesn't contain enough of the most essential vitamins and nutrients, but is higher in calories — or a student who doesn't eat as much as they need to given the lack of funds to afford a full lunch.

Additional K-12 Nutrition Resources and Tools

Food Tripping. This handy apps helps students find healthier options in any city.
Fooducate. This app allows users to scan barcodes to get a full nutritional rundown.
Ingredient1. Students with food allergies can use this app when shopping to avoid restricted foods.
Kurbo. This app connects students with health coaches and allows users to create goals.
MyFitnessPal. Students can track food and exercise easily in this app.
The Nutrition Source. This Twitter account provides evidence-based guidance on nutrition.
Smart Foods Planner. Provided by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, this tool helps students calculate the nutritional value of some of their favorite snacks.

K-12 Fitness Challenges and How to Conquer Them

Too much exposure to technology.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, today's children spend approximately seven hours per day using computers, tablets and cellphones, as well as watching television and playing video games. As this number has risen over the years, the rate of obesity has steadily ticked upwards. While technology can be used in important ways to help students engage in learning, it also allows for a more sedentary lifestyle. Parents who want to help their kids use technology in beneficial ways can review The New York Times' guide, “How to Limit Kids' Tech Use.”

Lack of modeling from parents and family.

As discussed by our expert, Nick Rizzo, children naturally model the behavior of their parents. If parents don't engage in physical activity — be it going to the gym, walking or playing sports — children don't see the need for fitness. Even if a parent doesn't want to play a team sport or go to the gym at 5 a.m. every morning, they can still model good physical fitness. PHIT World provides a list of more than 40 fun family fitness ideas to give parents an idea of engaging activities.

Lack of time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 61.9 percent of married couples with families have both parents employed. When coupled with additional extracurriculars, family activities and other personal, professional and social engagements, making time for physical activity can feel overwhelming. Even if time feels tight, parents and kids can still make time for activities. The Children's Hospital of Colorado offers several helpful tips, including walking or biking to school, taking breaks during homework for mini exercise sessions, and getting a dog to walk before/after school.

Not all kids enjoy team sports.

Because so many schools focus on providing physical activity via team sports, kids who don't enjoy these types of activities — or competitive sports in general — may feel like they have few options for being active. If a student isn't interested in team or individual sports, that doesn't mean they don't have options. Teachers can schedule field trips that allow for walking or hiking, parents can take up biking with their children, and students can engage in community activities such as volunteering at food banks or other nonprofits that involve physical activities.

Parental concerns about safety.

While it was common for children to engage in free play during previous decades, today's parents — especially those living in urban areas — may feel trepidation about their safety when playing in the street or walking around the neighborhood. Active For Life points out this growing trend while also noting that it's less common for children to live in close enough proximity to play together, creating a lack of opportunities for engaging in activities with friends. Parents can work with other school parents or neighbors to set up shifts for watching younger kids while they play outside, and also teach them how to be aware of their surroundings as they age.

Lack of physical education courses and exercise.

Two decades ago, physical education in all levels of K-12 schools was expected and even mandatory. Today, 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and only 2 percent of high schools require and/or offer daily physical education classes that last for an entire school year, according to a study published in the Milbank Quarterly. Amazingly, 22 percent of schools don't require physical education programs at all. Schools can partner with one of the nutrition and fitness nonprofits highlighted below, and parents can prioritize healthy movement before and/or after school and on the weekends.

Culture of convenience.

Going hand in hand with the notion that busy families with jam-packed schedules don't have time for exercise, chain restaurants are contributing to a culture of convenience that makes it more appealing to forego exercise and eat more calorically dense foods. It's much easier for overworked parents to go through the drive thru and pick up fast food than go to the grocery store and purchase raw vegetables, meats and dairy products that must be cooked. Laboring in the kitchen after a long day of work sounds unappealing to most, but plenty of online resources exist for families looking to do weekly meal prep that cuts down tremendously on time spent in the kitchen.

Additional K-12 Fitness Resources and Tools

Couch to 5K. A perfect app for inactive students, this program helps them run a 5K by the end of the program.
NFL Play 60. With this app, kids can create a team and get exercise.
MapMyRide. For the bicycling student, this app tracks rides, pace and calories.
Nike Training Club. Nike provides tons of workouts created by athletes and celebrities and allows users to track workouts.
Cincinnati Children's. This YouTube channel provides dozens of free, quick “HealthWorks!” workout and fitness videos for busy students.
Sworkit. For students who don't want to purchase equipment, this app provides tons of body weight activities.
Zombies, Run! A perfect fit for students who want a little creativity, this immersive app drops runners into a zombie-infested world that they must run away from.

K-12 Nutrition and Fitness School Spotlight

  • Action For Healthy Kids. This national nonprofit partners with schools to help promote healthy eating, exercise and physical education. As part of its model, AHK provides schools with tools and resources, implements programs and practices, and works to gain engagement from school staff, families, students and the larger community. Though largely based in the eastern part of the U.S., AHK is steadily creating new partnerships in the western states.

  • Fit2Be Kids. This organization works alongside secondary and primary schools, doctors, hospitals, recreational centers and cities/towns to address the socioeconomic issues that lead to obesity and seeks out solutions to the problem. The program maintains clubs in these locations that focus on teaching kids and their families about agriculture, healthy nutrition choices and physical activity. Fit2Be runs three types of clubs: summer, after school and weekends.

  • Focused Fitness. Focused Fitness provides a range of tools to help educators best support their students in physical activity. The organization provides the WELNET Software that helps PE teachers gather student fitness data alongside an after school program, a physical activity program for classroom teachers, an early learners fitness program, and four- to seven-minute videos designed for classroom activity breaks. Teachers can also take advantage of continuing education training.

  • National Garden Clubs – Youth Programs. While the National Garden Clubs run many programs, their youth initiatives focus on teaching children about the importance of agriculture and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. The group partners with schools to create youth gardening clubs from preschool to high school, provides several contests, scholarships and service project awards, and offers a range of curricula designed to engage students in fun studies of ecology and food production.

  • Urban Play Fitness. Recognizing that children are more likely to engage in physical activities that prioritize play and fun movement, Urban Play Fitness partners with schools, youth organizations and after school programs to introduce curricula designed to help kids move more. In addition to promoting activities, UPF also educates students about fitness and nutrition and engages local community members in supporting kids.

Advice from the Expert

Nick Rizzo, Training Director at RunRepeat

Nick Rizzo serves as the Training Director at RunRepeat.com. He has more than a decade of experience in the fitness industry, six years as a competitive powerlifter, four years training high school athletes and four years working as a teacher. Nick is passionate about K-12 health and nutrition, having dealt with obesity as a kid.
As childhood (and adult) obesity rates continue to rise in America, what steps can parents take to stop this trend and help their children live healthy and active lives?

One of the most powerful ways parents can stop this trend for their children is by modeling the proper behavior. If at home you spend the majority of your time sitting around, watching TV, on your phone or on the computer, you can expect that your kids will come to find this to be the norm.

If instead, the normal behavior the parents model involves being active, taking walks together, and working toward being overall fit, these become behaviors that your child is more likely to adopt as well. This same concept applies to the food we eat. If the foods that we typically eat and the food that is always on hand in the residence is unhealthy, you can expect that kids will pick up those same eating patterns. Removing easy access to junk food, snacks and food that isn't nutritious is one easy way to make the necessary changes to avoid obesity for both the child and the parent.

Many families are busy with work, school, extracurriculars and friends. As parents have less time to spend in the kitchen, how can they still provide healthy meals?

This is certainly an issue, one that my wife and I have encountered as well. Sometimes, your options are limited if cash is tight but this issue provides a great opportunity. For example, we have decided to cancel subscriptions to services such as Spotify, Hulu and the like. With that money, we are freed up to invest in a healthy meal delivery service. This both frees up the time of planning out meals for the week, grocery shopping and assembly, leaving just cooking, eating and cleaning. With this time freed up, we spend just a little bit of time of stocking up on healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables.

This option is doubly beneficial because by removing subscriptions to services that increase your likelihood of sitting around, watching TV and so on, you are nudging your family in the direction of being more active. With the time freed up from using the service, you can find great ways to integrate physical activity into your daily routines.

A line exists between teaching children about nutrition and wellness and instilling harmful thoughts about weight and size. How can parents carefully navigate this area and work to empower their children?

This all comes back to leading by example. How many times have you or someone you know referred to themselves as "fat," "chubby" and the like? The language we use about ourselves can quickly become how our kids think and speak about themselves as well. This also goes for how we also speak about other people. If the parent is constantly judging others for their appearance and speaking negatively about their body image, you can expect this way of viewing others to become normal for your child. If they view others in this way they are most certainly viewing themselves in a much harsher way.

By making sports, physical activity or working out a norm that you enjoy to do, that you bring your child along to learn about or practice with them, they can learn to inherently enjoy it. The combination of these suggestions is a great way to never really make health, weight and fitness inherently involve negative body image or self-talk, which is the norm for so many.

What are your best tips for getting kids excited about health and fitness?

Starting at a young age, make it something that you and your kids do together. It is a great way to bond with each other as well. As they grow up, support them in exploring new ways to be active, sports they want to try or hobbies they want to take up. Helping them explore this can allow you to find them leagues to join. Having friends that are also invested in certain sports or hobbies is a great way to keep your kids involved (because if their friends are doing it, it must be cool, right?). Additionally, this is a great time to teach your kids to develop a growth mindset and become invested in improving their skills and abilities. Learning to love putting in the work and improving themselves goes a long way in keeping a healthy mindset.

More Health and Wellness Guides for K-12 Students and Parents

After reviewing this guide, some parents may want to read up on additional health and wellness topics for kids in grades K-12. Check out some of the other topics we've covered below.