Advance with MUSC Health

National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month: Optimizing Kids’ Health at School

Advance With MUSC Health
September 15, 2023
plate of healthy food

Obesity in children is on the rise, tripling in the last 30 years. One out of six children is obese, and one out of three is overweight or obese.

Being obese increases a child’s risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression and anxiety, as well as conditions like asthma, arthritis (including chronic knee and lower back pain), and bone and muscle issues, says MUSC physician Kathleen Head, M.D, MS, MPH.

“Obesity affects so many things you wouldn’t normally associate with it,” she explains. As obesity numbers climb, so does the number of kids with diabetes. 

“Children who are categorized as obese are four times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes by the time they’re age 25,” notes Dr. Head.

Engaging schools in a culture of wellness

Dr. Head, along with her MUSC colleague, pediatrician Janice Key, M.D., are making a positive impact on those numbers in South Carolina. As associate director and medical director, respectively, of MUSC’s Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness (MUSC BCCW), they are helping to cultivate a health-focused culture in schools through wellness initiatives that engage school communities in creating healthy learning environments. 

The voluntary program serves 20 school districts across the state, including 265 schools and 165,000 students. “We realized quickly that this at-risk population spends a lot of time at school,” says Dr. Key, who started the program in 2010. “It’s a place where kids eat one or two meals a day and learn about nutrition. We thought: What if we could help change the environment at school?

“By going to where children are, five days a week for most months of the year, where they live, learn, play, and eat, we can address their nutrition, activity, and social and emotional needs to help them live a healthy lifestyle,” she says.

The school-based wellness initiatives target improved nutrition, increased physical activity, and enhanced social-emotional wellness for both students and staff. 

“We believe helping the school develop a culture of wellness is the best way to bring about change,” says Dr. Head. School wellness leaders learn evidence-based wellness strategies. The MUSC BCCW team teaches them how to run the program, then trains and assists, including helping schools establish a wellness committee made up of staff, parents, and community members who meet regularly to plan wellness activities and set and implement policies.

A wellness checklist helps guide schools in setting best practices. “The checklist is essentially a 200-item menu with ideas and tools to promote physical activity, good nutrition, staff wellness, mental well-being, and more.” This might include activity breaks during class, action-based learning sessions, a water-drinking campaign, morning meditation breaks and self-checks. Schools earn points they can use to buy wellness items: think yoga mats, refillable water bottles, materials to build a school garden.

Study shows healthy kids are better learners

A recent study led by Dr. Key and Dr. Head is proof of success. The research team observationally studied 103 students in schools participating and not participating in the MUSC BCCW School-based Wellness Initiative over five years, comparing the average student body mass index (BMI).

“We found the average BMI for students in participating schools trended down significantly over time. For students in schools that didn’t participate, the average BMI continued to climb as it did nationally,” says Dr. Head. The more wellness practices and tools a school implemented and the higher points it earned, the lower the student BMI at the school.

In past studies, the team found “kids at participating schools got leaner more often, were missing fewer school days, had a lower suspension rate and were graduating from high school more,” says Dr. Key.

“We’re very proud of those results,” says Dr. Head. “Healthier students are better learners and better learners live healthier adult lives.”

“Helping kids do better in education is a health factor,” agrees Dr. Key.

Tips for parents and teachers

  • Track your child’s growth with the growth chart provided by your pediatrician. If your child is starting to get overweight, make an adjustment. If your child is obese, go to your doctor more often for measurements and guidance.
  • Follow the “5-2-1-none” rule:
    • 5 or more fruits and vegetables each day (not counting potatoes)
    • 2 hours or less of screen time
    • 1 hour or more of exercise
    • 0 sugar drinks
  • Work on community: Join the wellness committee at your local school.

Remember: An obesity diagnosis is covered by insurance and includes dietitian/individual counseling six times a year.

To learn more, visit MUSC’s Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness.