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Mental Health Month: Poor diet, lack of exercise remain after pandemic ends

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Poor diet and lack of exercise may lead to chronic health conditions and poor mental health in adolescents. While the pandemic was shown to increase bad eating habits and decrease physical activity, a new study by the CDC found that conditions have not improved since 2019.

In 2021, the study found the consumption of fruits, vegetables and daily breakfast remained low and worsened overall from 2019 to 2021.

All poor dietary behaviors were lower among Asian students compared with students from other racial and ethnic groups.

Physical activity also decreased from 2019 to 2021 – with troubling results – even after a return to school for most students. Less than one fourth of students are getting the recommended 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily and only 16 percent met both aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines.

“Not meeting national physical activity guidelines mean that students are not receiving the multiple physical and mental health benefits of physical activity,” the study said.

The results show that physical education class attendance and sports team participation overall decreased from 2019 to 2021.

“Physical education classes and sports opportunities are also critical for developing social and emotional learning competencies (e.g., social interaction skills, communication skills, teamwork, and goal setting) as well as fostering school connectedness,” the report stated.

The report gave future directives to schools based on the findings.

“Schools face multiple priorities, including addressing mental health issues, mitigating learning loss among students, and offering opportunities for students to learn about and practice health behaviors.”

The recommendations include:

  • Ensuring regular access to school-based physical activity and school meals that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards support students’ health and readiness to learn (
  • Encourage participation in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and providing multiple opportunities for students to access breakfast, including Grab and Go and Second Chance models that do not require students to arrive early to eat in the cafeteria.
  • The Community Preventive Services Task Force recommends school-based gardening programs combined with nutrition education as a strategy to increase vegetable consumption
  • Implementing a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program increases opportunities for students to be physically active before, during, and after school, and can be tailored based on available resources, interests, time allotments and community support.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.