This article is part two of “Healthy bodies get an A+,” featured in Perspectives Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2011.
From childhood to the teenage years, education and learning are central aspects of growth and development, whether formally through educational institutions and programs or more informally through family members and exposure to real-life experiences. From a school perspective in Canada, youth spend approximately 14 years progressing through elementary and high school — plus additional post-secondary time for many — and these formative years are so crucial in helping youth build a strong foundation of skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their future careers and other aspects of life. For many individuals, when thinking about these years for children, grandchildren or school-aged youth in general, the focus is often on providing the best tools, resources and outlets for learning. To help promote success, however, whether that’s in relation to broader academic performance or more specifically as applied to financial literacy and money smarts, it’s important to dig deeper and understand what drives the ability to learn. In examining the foundations of learning holistically, taking into account the impact of factors such as physical activity and nutrition, individuals can help children and youth put their best foot forward both in academic achievement and in building sound financial management and decision-making skills.
RBC Wealth Management (RBC WM) is committed to assisting in building financial literacy among the younger generations. “Introducing the RBC WM Financial Literacy Program,” a practical and comprehensive learning program available in 2018 for individuals 16 years of age and older.
The impact of physical activity on learning
When it comes to academic performance, a vast range of studies show a significant relationship between fitness and educational achievement and that physical activity positively affects cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behaviour.1 While the precise cause is still debated among researchers, being physically active is known to improve brain health in two key areas. First, it increases blood flow to the brain, which helps to keep brain cells functioning properly, and second, it stimulates the growth and maintenance of neural connections within the brain. And while the brain is capable of making new neural connections into adult life, childhood is a time when these neural connections and synapses form at a greater rate and when the brain’s main “circuitry” is formed. In fact, during the first decade of a child’s life, the brain forms trillions of connections and synapses and this is the foundation upon which the brain continues developing. However, if proper health is not maintained, these connections can be weakened or eliminated.2
When it comes to physical activity, the unfortunate reality is that the majority of school-aged children in Canada are not getting the recommended amount on a regular basis. In fact, of those aged five to 17, only 13 percent of boys and six percent of girls are meeting the national guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.3 Furthermore, children and youth within that age range are spending an average of 8.5 hours being sedentary each day, which is roughly two-thirds of their waking hours.4
These patterns of sedentary behaviour among the majority of children and youth put them at a disadvantage both in and out of the classroom. The end result, as research demonstrates, is greater numbers of school-aged youth who have weakened cognitive skills, who struggle with academic challenges, and who have increased aggression and poor academic behaviour and attitudes.5 Specifically in regards to developing money smarts and building sound financial management skills, these statistics apply in much the same way, as the brains of physically inactive youth are less primed for this type of learning. Further to the impact on academics and practical financial management skills, low levels of physical activity also put children at a greater risk of serious physical and emotional health issues, including high blood pressure, breathing problems, sleep apnea, low self-esteem, depression, and negative body image.6
Tips for promoting physical activity in the daily lives of children and youth
- Act as role models and participate in physical activities with them. A family approach can be motivating and also helps form long-term patterns.
- Depending on age and maturity level, encourage walking or biking to and from school, parks or friends’ houses, and assist in planning safe routes and secure travel practices.
- Pinpoint what activities or sports your children are most interested in and pursue organized programs. This offers supplemental social benefits, which can also positively impact emotional well-being.
- Limit screen time and set guidelines and boundaries for when children can watch television, play video games, or be online. Tips to assist in appropriate supervision are to have electronics and computers in a shared family space and to have a set time in the evening when children’s personal devices are stored in the parents’ bedroom for the night.
- Research options for unstructured and structured activities within your community, such as bike paths, walking trails or community centre programs.
Did you know?
Children and youth aged five to 17 should have no more than two hours of recreational screen time per day (this includes via smartphones). Currently, only 24 percent of those in this age group meet these guidelines.7
For more information, please view the Government of Canada’s Get Active Tip Sheets and the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.
Nutrition and the brain
As the body’s largest organ, the brain requires a steady amount of nutrients to function properly, and during an individual’s younger years, meeting nutritional recommendations is even more important to promote healthy brain development. Much like physical activity, there are also well-established links between proper nutrition and academic outcomes. More specifically, studies show that students who maintain a healthy diet have improved memory, problem-solving skills and creative abilities.9
According to Canadian studies, however, many children and youth are coming up well short of the nutritional recommendations. For example, 31.5 percent of children and youth are either overweight or obese, a percentage that’s nearly tripled over the last three decades.10 Of children aged four to eight, 70 percent do not get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, but approximately 30 percent of all Canadian children eat French fries at least twice a week and consume one or more soft drinks each day. Canadian students are also highly influenced by food marketing and labelling, and are much more likely to make poor food choices if unhealthy options are available within or nearby to their school.11 Unfortunately, these growing patterns of unhealthy eating and nutritional deficiencies have been associated with poor school performance, and also put youth at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and high cholesterol.12
Getting enough Zzzs
Sleep also plays a crucial role in boosting and maintaining brain function, as well as the ability to focus and retain information. Children aged five to 13 should get nine to 11 hours of sleep per night, and those 14 to 17 years old should get eight to 10 hours, with consistent bedtimes and wake-up times. Unfortunately, many youth aren’t getting appropriate amounts, as research indicates 31 percent of school-aged kids in Canada are sleep deprived.8
Tips for improving eating habits among students
For parents and guardians, establishing good eating habits starts in the home, but given that the majority of children and teens spend a large proportion of their day at school, opportunities exist to build upon those eating habits developed at home and extend them into schools. The following are strategies to consider in both school and home environments.
- Encourage children to participate in meal preparation at home with age-appropriate tasks, and involve them in packing healthy snacks and lunches to take to school.
- Advocate for healthy food policies at your child’s school, as nutrition policies, healthy menus and health curricula have been shown to positively impact children’s eating practices.13
- Limit sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and establish rules at home for snacking. This can be easier to implement by having healthy food options available and eliminating “junk food” (or storing it in a place where it isn’t easily accessible so it can be saved as an infrequent treat).
- Advocate for and support programs that bring healthy food to schools (e.g., Breakfast Club of Canada, Farm to Schools grant program from Farm to Cafeteria Canada).
- Ensure children always start their day with a healthy breakfast, whether that’s at home or through a breakfast program at school. Research indicates participation in school breakfast programs improves academic performance, enhances cognitive function and reduces tardiness.14
- Consider planting a fruit and vegetable garden at home, or encourage the establishment of a school- or community-based one in your area, as they offer the potential to contribute to nutritional education and a greater connection and appreciation for where food comes from and how it’s grown.
Leading into the winter months, these immunity-boosting and superfood recipes will help keep health in check. Try the Chicken and avocado quesadillas and Arugula salad with roasted beets, which offer a range of nutritional benefits for children and adults alike.
For more on brain health for younger individuals and adults, please read the RBC WM Perspectives Spring 2016 article, “Promoting brain health at every age.”
Financial stress and the family impact
According to a national survey by the Financial Planning Standards Council (FPSC), 42 percent of Canadians rank money as their greatest stress.15 From a family perspective, this type of stress is often far-reaching, with its negative effects impacting not only the emotional well-being of the individual, but also relationships with a spouse or partner, as well as children. And leading into the holidays, while the focus is often on the joys of the season and enjoying time with loved ones, it’s also a time of year when some individuals experience an increase in stresses around their finances.
Taking steps to reduce financial stress within the household can play a large role in fostering a more positive learning environment for building financial literacy skills among younger family members. Learning about financial topics often occurs outside of a structured school setting, and parents and guardians are often the root of this type of education for children and youth. If financial stress is taking a toll within the household, this may negatively impact or limit opportunities for skills development and financial discussions, and children may be discouraged from wanting to participate and learn.
No matter the time of year, research indicates that having appropriate financial plans in place goes a long way towards decreasing financial and overall stress levels. In fact, studies indicate that Canadians with comprehensive financial plans — which take into account everything from investment choices and tax considerations to insurance to retirement and estate planning — reported greater levels of emotional well-being and overall contentment than those who have engaged in even limited planning.16