Be Well: A Mini Guide to Back-to-School Health

These days, classroom prep means keeping an eye on backpack weight, elevating your child’s heart rate every day, setting up a posture-friendly homework nook, and diversifying the lunchbox.

Be Well by Mpls. St. Paul Magazine

As kids head back to school in person, parents across the country are letting out a collective sigh of relief. Just take one look at your social media feed, and you can feel the excitement—it’s palpable! After a never-ending year of virtual learning, our kids are finally back to where they belong. While we might be out of practice, it’s time to get serious again about reinstating school night routines, filling lunchboxes with nutritious foods, and setting up our kiddos with healthy habits for success.

Getting a Move On

Each fall, kids trade their active, carefree summers for long, sedentary schooldays. Despite research that exercise promotes focus and attention, physical activity often falls to the bottom of the academic agenda. “Our kids’ activity level decreases dramatically in the fall, especially with middle and high school students,” says Amy Horton, doctor of chiropractic and associate professor with Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU). “There are a lot of creative ways to get little movements in during the day without being disruptive.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, only one-quarter of kids 6-17 years old get sixty minutes of exercise a day, the recommended amount. Luckily, every little bit helps. Kids can move their bodies in less obvious ways so they don’t disrupt their classmates. Subtle movements like fidgeting, wiggling, and stretching, can release pent-up energy from inactivity, while tensing and relaxing muscles can prevent joints and muscles from tightening. After a day of sitting still and listening, their bodies are begging for an increased heart rate and a release of endorphins. Exercise will propel them through the end of their day and get them ready to focus on the math or science assignments due the following day.

School-sponsored sports not only get kids moving each afternoon, but they also build healthy habits that can extend into adulthood. However, parents should book a sports physical to ensure their child is ready to hit the field or the court. Pediatricians recommend, and most schools require, a sports physical when registering for team sports. That’s because a lot changes from year to year. Both growth and weight gain can leave a child’s body with asymmetrical muscles and imbalanced posture. A yearly sports physical can track these changes and work to minimize the chances of a sports injury.

Chiropractic adjustments help normalize function and improve range of motion, but they also work within the nervous system to optimize everything from breathing and heart rate to immunity and mental health,” says Horton.

Ergonomics for Kids

One area that can determine the overall health of your child is their posture. Poor posture restricts the artery running along their spine. Like a garden hose, when you stretch it out, the water flows freely. Curl it up, and you risk cutting off the water supply. Similarly, when we slouch, we constrict the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain. In addition to fatigue, brain fog, and loss of focus, this behavior puts harmful pressure on the joints and muscles.

“If it’s feasible for your family, consider setting up a homework station,” says Horton, who goes on to explain that sitting at a desk can properly align the arms and legs at 90 degrees. “Encouraging kids to switch positions every hour—from sitting to standing—can also help them find the proper alignment that redistributes potentially damaging pressure.”

A desktop or docking station that’s slightly elevated to eye level will also align a child’s body ergonomically and facilitate movement. With foresight, parents can work with their kids to form good posture habits. By prioritizing helpful exercises and making them a fun part of your family’s daily routine, you can strengthen their backs and get them standing straighter than ever:

  • Visualize a crayon or pencil between your shoulder blades and squeeze them tightly. This motion strengthens the rhomboids, pulls the shoulder blades together, and stretches the chest open.
  • Trace the letters of the alphabet in the air with your arms or do the YMCA to get the blood and oxygen flowing throughout your body.
  • For little kids, songs with accompanying movements like I’m a Little Teapot or Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes can give your kids a fun brain break while providing range of motion.

Kids and teens must also take precautions with their backpacks. As they transition between classes transporting heavy items, bags grow heavier and weigh down their bodies. “Generally, it’s safe for kids to carry ten percent of their body weight. Anything more, and you risk hurting your child’s shoulders and back,” warns Horton.

Nourish to Flourish

After a hurried day of work, carpooling, and after-school activities, not to mention dinner, homework, and bedtime, the last thing a tired parent wants to do is pack a lunch for the following day. The importance of a balanced lunch, however, cannot be overstated. A diverse, whole foods diet plays a significant role in developing both the body and mind. Nutritious foods help your students focus and perform better in school. So, what’s an exhausted parent to do?

“Simplify and don’t overthink it,” says Paige Prestigiacomo, sports nutrition resident at NWHSU’s Human Performance Center. “It helps to break lunch into four categories: Protein, carbs, healthy fat, and color.”

  • Protein is essential to turning food into energy and circulating oxygen throughout the body. Examples include deli meat, peanut butter and jelly, hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese.
  • Carbs fill you up and satisfy your hunger. Along with essential nutrients, carbs are a great source of fiber. Examples include bread, tortillas, bagels, and crackers. When possible, choose whole wheat.
  • Healthy fats provide essential fatty acids, which help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins. These vitamins, including A, D, and E, cannot be processed by the body without fat. Examples include almond or peanut butter (sun butter or seed butter for nut-free schools), mashed avocado, and hummus.
  • Color will provide a variety of nutrients that supports the immune system and overall health. So-called rainbow eating can almost guarantee you won’t miss much. Examples include colorful fruits and vegetables.

And, again, don’t stress too much about every single morsel of food your children put into their mouths. “You would never expect your kid to score 100 percent on every test, so we shouldn’t expect them to eat perfectly all of the time either,” says Prestigiacomo. “Shoot for 80 percent whole foods to fuel the body, leaving 20 percent for the fun stuff.”

Inadequate hydration causes a host of problems, from fatigue to constipation. Unfortunately, the school day leaves little time for water breaks. Save your kids a trip to the water fountain and keep them well-hydrated by slipping a water bottle into their backpack. “Dehydration can take a serious toll on your body, both in the short-term and down the road,” says Horton. “Drink half your body weight in ounces. I like that general rule of thumb because it’s easy to remember.” Athletes, she cautions, should drink more fluids to match their activity level.