Research shows urgent need to teach healthy habits in primary school

Children’s health improves if they have a healthy lunch at school, get varied exercise and are taught in class about healthy behaviour. These are the findings of the ‘Healthy Primary School of the Future’ project, the final results of which will be announced tomorrow during a symposium in Venlo on Tuesday, September 22. Researchers from Maastricht University compared more than 2,200 children from four project schools and four regular schools for four years. They were shocked at the wide differences in health among children in these schools and are making an urgent appeal to policymakers, school boards and government: doing nothing is not an option.


‘Healthy Primary School of the Future’ results

The multi-year project ‘Healthy Primary School of the Future’ (Gezonde Basisschool van de Toekomst, GBT) took place in the Parkstad region of South Limburg, an area with a relatively high level of health issues among the population. The researchers observed that the body mass index (BMI) of children at GBT primary schools was much better after four years compared to that of children in the control schools. The children at the GBT schools all had a healthier weight, while the weight of children in the control schools only increased, sometimes alarmingly. Even more important than weight expressed in BMI as a predictor of chronic diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease is belly size, because it reflects the amount of belly fat, which increases the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. Waist circumference also improved considerably (meaning belly fat was reduced) in children at GBT schools. In terms of eating habits, the GBT schools have seen a spectacular increase in the number of children opting to drink water at school rather than sweet drinks. Another striking result at these schools is an improvement in the atmosphere in the classroom, with a reduction in bullying.

Project expansion

Given the impressive differences compared to the control schools, the researchers’ central message to policymakers, the food industry and government is that action is needed. More than half of the Dutch population is overweight. Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary diseases are widespread in the Netherlands. A growing number of children are also developing chronic diseases due to an unhealthy lifestyle, resulting in declining educational achievement and increased social inequality. According to the researchers, the GBT project clearly demonstrates that the younger you start learning to adopt a healthy lifestyle, the greater the effect will be in the long term. Moreover, children take the healthy habits home with them, thus encouraging behavioural change in their parents. This is especially beneficial in the most vulnerable families. It is one of the reasons that the project initiators are expanding the GBT project to include schools elsewhere in Limburg, including the Venlo region. In order to realise this rapidly, on Tuesday various partners will establish a foundation to implement the expansion. Those involved in the foundation support the Province of Limburg’s aim to scale up the project to at least thirty schools in Limburg by 2023.

About the Healthy Primary School of the Future

The aim of the Healthy Primary School of the Future project is to investigate whether children who are offered a structured daily routine at primary school, with sufficient time for education, sports, exercise, play and attention to healthy nutrition, achieve better physical, emotional and intellectual growth. The programme, which is unique in Limburg and the Netherlands, is an initiative of the Province of Limburg, the MOVARE education foundation, the public health service GGD South Limburg, Maastricht University, Maastricht UMC+, day care organisations and playgroups, in collaboration with many private and social organisations.

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