Expert Commentary

Students’ eating and exercise habits over the summer break: The role of family income

A 2015 study in the Journal of School Health examining whether family income affects the eating and exercise habits of children during their summer break from school.


Researchers have spent decades investigating how and why children’s summer break from school affects their learning. A much-cited 1996 meta-analysis in the Review of Educational Research offers ample evidence that when young minds are on vacation for several months, some of what was learned the previous school year is forgotten — a trend referred to as the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Hundreds of subsequent studies have examined this phenomenon, with many touching on issues of inequality and evaluating how best to mitigate losses for under-privileged students who may already struggle academically.

Summer can have other unintended effects as well, particularly on students’ health — they may not eat as well, could exercise less, and screen time can increase. A 2014 study in Preventing Chronic Disease found evidence of an increased rate of weight gain during summer vacations, particularly for black and Hispanic students, as well as adolescents and children who were already overweight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a good source for basic data and resources on childhood obesity, and such information can help local governments decide how and when to intervene in the best way.

At the same time, many low-income families depend on meals provided through the National School Lunch Program, and as a consequence, summer can mean hardship. More than half of public-school students were considered “low income” in 2013, according to an 2015 analysis of federal education data by the Southern Education Foundation.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of School Health, “Weight-Related Behaviors When Children Are in School Versus on Summer Breaks: Does Income Matter?” explores how student nutrition and exercise patterns change over summer vacation. The research was based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) over the 2003-2008 period, and other sources. For the purposes of the study, grades 1 to 5 were considered elementary school, 6 to 9 middle school and 10 to 12 as high school. The authors — Y. Claire Wang, Seanna Vine, Amber Hsiao, Andrew Rundle and Jeff Goldsmith — are all affiliated with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Regardless of family income levels, the children surveyed generally had poorer eating habits over the summer break. They consumed more added sugar and, with the exclusion of potatoes, ate fewer vegetables.
  • Overall, the students tended to watch more television, averaging an extra 18 minutes per day. High-school students from higher-income families increased the amount of time in front of TV and computer screens more than lower-income high-school students.
  • Students engaged in slightly more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity over the summer — an additional five minutes per day — but still didn’t meet standard government recommendations.
  • Lower-income teenage girls exercised less over the summer, with significantly less moderate-to-vigorous exercise. However, those from higher-income families participated in more moderate-to-vigorous activities over the break.
  • Elementary-school students also exercised less over the summer, and the level of exercise declined the most among those from higher-income families.

“While most behaviors related to weight gain were more prevalent among lower-income students, such differences appeared to be year-round and the effects of out-of-school time were rather mixed,” the researchers conclude. They suggest that “schools can play a leadership role in fostering a healthy transition from the school year to summer breaks, particularly for school districts serving low-income communities.”

Related research: A 2011 study by the RAND Corporation, “How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning,” focused on the loss of knowledge that students experience over their summer break and how summer instruction could help mitigate that loss. Also of interest is a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management titled “What Is a Summer Job Worth? The Impact of Summer Youth Employment on Academic Outcomes.” It looks at how New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) affects the academic performance and attendance rates of high school students who participated in the program. A 2014 research roundup looks at programs aimed at keeping teens safe and out of trouble, including after-school programs and curfew laws.


Keywords: fitness, exercise, sugar, obesity, television, students, children, youth, poverty, meals, food, nutrition

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