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Students' Healthy Habits Can Boost Their Chances for College

New York City

A student's academic progress doesn't happen in a vacuum, and a new study suggests students' healthy behaviors are linked not just to grades but also to their own motivation to go to college. 

In a study to be presented Sunday morning at the American Association of Educational Research meeting here, researchers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities found that after controlling for students' socioeconomic and racial differences, students' health behaviors explained 10 percent of the difference in their grades and college aspirations.

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Education researcher Julio Cabrera and colleagues analyzed student health and education data for more than 80,000 public school 10th graders who participated in the Minnesota Student Survey in 2013 and 2016. The Census-like survey asks high schoolers questions about grades, health behaviors, their motivation to learn and their academic expectations.

The researchers focused on four health behaviors which individually have been previously associated with higher academic achievement:

Exercise: Meeting the American Association of Pediatrics' guidelines to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity four times a week. In the study, every additional day students exercised at least one hour was associated with a higher grade point average, as well as higher rates of planning to attend higher education after graduation. "This is the most malleable factor—something we can really control—but only a third of the kids are even meeting these guidelines," Cabrera said.

Drugs: Students who reported avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana also had on average higher grades and commitment to learning.

Sleep: Students reported on average less than seven hours of sleep a night. However, for every additional hour they slept,on average, students were 13 percent to 14 percent more likely to plan to go to college. More sleep was associated with higher GPAs and committment to learning as well.

Nutrition: Students who had regular access to nutritious foods and ate fruits and vegetables daily also had higher grades and commitment to learning. Cabrera said he was surprised that overall diet and food security showed a greater effect on student learning than any other element. "Food security is extremely important," Cabrera said. "If we do provide [students] with lunch throughout their middle and high school careers, we are increasing their likelihood of going to college by 56 percent."

"Not one variable alone can explain everything that's going on in students' outcomes," Cabrera said. "It has to be almost a synergistic movement where we tackle all these [health factors] at the same time," he added.  "When we take these four variables together, they have a huge impact."

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