Activity trackers and lunch leftovers: Researchers are visiting Anchorage schools to study student wellness
Mar. 6—Last month during their lunch period, Bowman elementary students handed over their finished lunch trays, complete with half-eaten bananas, bitten-into burritos, and mostly-sipped cartons of milk.
Katie Cueva and her team then launched into action, scooping handfuls of leftover chicken onto scales and calling out their weight to an adjacent researcher who typed the data into a laptop. Cueva is a faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for Behavioral Health Research and Services, part of the Institute for Social and Economic Research.
The lunches make up small data points in a larger study that will track how much Anchorage students eat and move over the next four years.
The research is a continuation of a student wellness initiative that expanded lunch and recess at some Anchorage schools in 2019. They learned that with longer lunch and recess, students were sleeping better, eating more lunch, behaving better and were less "hangry" after school, said Julianna Cohen, an associate professor with a faculty appointment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty position at Merrimack College, where she directs the Center for Health Inclusion Research and Practice.
Cohen volunteered to evaluate the 2019 initiative, and she, Cueva and a team of research assistants will continue that evaluation during the next several years.
Anchorage schools are convenient subjects for the study: Some district schools have already started expanding lunch and recess, while others haven't. Supported by the findings of the 2019 research, the Anchorage School Board voted to start moving toward a districtwide expansion of longer lunch and recess periods last month.
Bowman already has a half-hour each for both lunch and recess, said Cueva. She stood in the high-ceilinged cafeteria after instructing each student who had grabbed a lunch tray to save their trash instead of throwing it out.
"At this point, it's a real good natural experiment to look at 'Well, schools that have shorter lunches, what are kids eating there? How much food are they eating there? And what kinds of food?'" Cueva said. "And then we can compare that to the kids that have longer times to eat."
The team's research is funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
They are trying to figure out whether students eat more food with longer lunches. To do that, they're weighing students' lunches before and after they eat. They're also trying to learn about student exercise and sleep quality by having students wear wristband activity trackers.
"All of this is helping us better understand what's happening with our students and the changes that we're making, and then how to determine to move forward in the best, most purposeful way," said the district's coordinator of health and physical education, Melanie Sutton.
The day before the research team visited Bowman, some researchers were at Rogers Park Elementary collecting activity monitors that a number of students, with parent permission, had opted to wear on their wrists for the week.
Brittany Rodvik, the project manager, and a few other teammates walked the halls of the school, stopping at each classroom to check off names and retrieve the small bands. In a sixth-grade class, one student lost a band during hockey practice. Another let the researchers know she took hers off during martial arts practice.
The monitors measure how much students move each day, from soccer practice to restlessness at night. The tracker gives researchers a "snapshot" of a typical week of activity in the lives of students. They collect data across several different schools at different points in the school year, Rodvik said.
"It's particularly exciting because we'll be able to work with the school district as it continues to roll it out," Cohen said. "And so some of the things that we heard about as benefits, such as hearing that kids were sleeping better at night, hearing that kids were eating more lunch, hearing that there's better behavior in the classroom — these are things now that we'll be able to objectively measure with parent permission," Cohen said.
The group of researchers is also interviewing teachers and principals, to determine whether student behavior is different — whether they're less disruptive in class and able to focus more. They're also sending surveys home to parents.
"With the thought being, 'Well, maybe if they got more food to eat or had more physical activity opportunities, perhaps you're able to settle more, engage more in the academic context? Or maybe not," Cueva said.
Cueva said the study could have national implications since there are no national guidelines for the length of recess, lunch or activity breaks.
And the changes in the school day may have broader implications for student health, too.
"If you get kids started on the right track as far as what kinds of foods they eat, and whether or not they have a physically active lifestyle, that can really translate into their outcomes for their whole life," Cueva said.