5 Ways to Make Back-to-School Healthy

In the Pacific Northwest, August is the end of summer and the bellwether for back-to-school. With the excitement of new classes, renewed friendships, and fresh starts also arrives fall bringing coolers days, rainy forecasts, and common colds – not to mention the flu and Covid.

Research has shown that healthy students are better learners. So, whether you’re the student or you’re getting your kids ready for school, now is the time to ensure school days are full of smiles and not setbacks. Here are five ways to make your return to school and fall healthy.

1. Get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are one of the key ways parents can protect the health of their children, from newborns to college students. Many one-time vaccinations prevent highly contagious and life-threatening diseases like measles, whooping cough, and chickenpox. The newer HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine can prevent cancer later in life. The CDC has a web page dedicated to vaccines for children by age that includes a quiz to find out which vaccines might be needed and a schedule.

Vaccinations aren’t just for students and children. To prevent Covid from surging again – especially as everyone spends more time indoors – ensuring Covid vaccinations and boosters are up-to-date is essential for parents and grandparents as well as kids.

It’s also important to get the flu shot. It protects people from getting the flu, reduces the severity of illness in those who do get it, and decreases flu-associated hospitalization. The flu vaccine also helps protect people with chronic illness (like heart disease), pregnant people and their babies, and helps save children’s lives. Despite these benefits, only about half of Americans get a flu shot.

2. Wash those hands.

With more people in close quarters, more germs can spread. More germs mean a greater chance of catching some sort of illness, from mild to severe. Thankfully, there is a simple solution: soap + water. Handwashing before eating, after using the toilet, after blowing the nose, coughing, or sneezing, and other times of the day can eliminate those germs and lower the risk of getting sick.

Although washing hands is easy, there are specific steps to ensure the hands are truly clean. The one reminder that is worth repeating: scrub hands for at least 20 seconds. Humming or singing “Happy Birthday” twice is one way to pass the time.

3. Go outside and move.

Indoors time usually means screen time. The use of social media, like TikTok, has been shown to aggravate mental health problems, making people think that everyone else’s life is better and triggering feelings of sadness. To ensure back-to-school health, it’s important to get outside and to move.

Physical activity can reduce anxiety and aid focus in school. Interacting with nature can help empathy and cooperation. Cynthia Frantz, PhD, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio explains, “Spending time in nature has cognitive benefits, but it also has emotional and existential benefits that go beyond just being able to solve arithmetic problems more quickly.” Plus, being in the sun boosts vitamin D levels which help prevent infections.

Experts recommend that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. That can be before, during, or after school; it doesn’t matter if it’s structured as a team sport or having fun in the backyard. Adults need to move too. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and 2 days of muscle strengthening activity each week. For some ideas on how to go outside and move, revisit our June blog here.

4. Forget the sugar high.

Returning to the school year can often mean tighter schedules and less time to plan and prep meals. Most children eat half their calories while at school. So, select healthier options whenever possible. Healthy diets include fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, lean meats and oils in controlled portions. Limit your intake  of saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium .

With after-school snacks, as well as Halloween and Thanksgiving coming up, it can be tempting to eat candy, grab a bag of chips, or drink sugary beverages. The trick is to work toward moderation. And Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia, advises, “Avoid labeling foods as good or bad, and aim to have only a few pieces of candy, balancing this with healthy meals for the day.” Some healthy, quick snack options are:

  • Veggies and dip or hummus
  • Fresh fruit
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Trail mix

5. Make a plan.

We’ve all learned that because of pandemics and other potential crises, creating an emergency plan is one way to gain some peace of mind – and be healthier for it.

The CDC recommends these ABCs for emergency preparedness and planning as students head back to school:

A – ASK how you would be reunited with your child in an emergency or evacuation

B – BRING extra medicines, special food, or supplies your child would need if you were separated overnight

C – COMPLETE a backpack card and tuck one in your child’s backpack and your wallet

Discussing what to do in emergencies can help reduce concerns if an emergency does happen.

Former CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D., summed up why planning should be part of back-to-school activities. “As a parent and grandparent, I know that back-to-school time is a busy time. Yet, I encourage parents and students to be mindful of some health essentials to add to your to-do lists,” he said. “Getting a flu shot this fall, frequent hand-washing, and staying active all contribute to a healthier and more productive academic year.”

Sources: US News; CDC; APA