South Dakota Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp shares the importance of student health and wellness

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As a former teacher, South Dakota’s Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp has seen first-hand how critical students’ health and wellness becomes when it is time to learn. Research shows a clear connection between health, nutrition, learning and attendance. Throughout her time as Secretary of Education, Dr. Schopp has helped show schools how this “learning connection” can change their classrooms and schools for the better.

We took some time to talk with Dr. Schopp about this learning connection and how implementing a Fuel Up to Play 60 program can help improve student health and wellness. She shared a few tips for all schools to help their students fuel up each morning, and stay active year round.

Why do you feel nutrition and physical activity are important to learning?

Dr. Schopp: In the same way a car needs fuel, oil, transmission fluid and other materials to run, the brain needs food to run properly and can’t operate on gas alone. Thus the balance of good food and physical activity provides the building blocks for the brain to work properly.

In his book “Brain Rules,” John Medina discusses how physical activity improves cognition. There is an ancient reason why our brains respond to increased activity. Millions of years ago, if people sat around for even a short period of time, they could potentially end up as someone’s lunch. People walked perhaps up to 12 miles a day looking and hunting for food for survival.

Medina gives two reasons why movement can improve brain function. First, physical activity increases oxygen flow to the brain, which has been proven to result in an uptick in mental sharpness. The second and more scientific reason is physical activity acts directly on the molecules in the brain to increase new transmissions across the brain.

In as little as four months, moving from a sedentary to an active lifestyle has the potential to improve all functions including memory, problem solving, planning, attention and cognition. Because of this, teachers can help students by reminding them to get up and move frequently during the day, especially prior to any sort of activity requiring mental alertness.

How are students and staff in South Dakota implementing the changes and being more mindful of their own health and wellness?

Dr. Schopp: Awareness is the key to getting schools more engaged in wellness programs. As a Department of Education, we don’t mandate but instead offer training and support through collaborative programs from the Department of Health. An example was a recent workshop on how to create a healthier environment for students to learn and staff to work.

Staff from the Child and Adult Nutrition Office have also helped to champion efforts toward “Breakfast in the Classroom,” [an initiative that has also been implemented through Fuel Up to Play 60 program efforts.]

Of course, many of these programs depend on district leadership and while the options are there, it does require someone to step up to implement.

If a school is just getting started in their health and wellness efforts, what, in your opinion, is a good first step?

Dr. Schopp: Find one area of focus that you can do that will be successful rather than trying to change everything at once.

What next? How will the integration of programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 and similar wellness initiatives affect the accomplishments of future generations?

Dr. Schopp: We know the effect of obesity and lack of proper nutrition and exercise on learning and the quality of life. We owe it to our children to provide them with the tools to be healthy. A diploma and a healthy lifestyle should be the goal of every school district statewide.

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