Project Spotlight: Texas School Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey

Published: February 8, 2022

The Texas School Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey, often referred to as Texas SPAN, is an ongoing project conducted by the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living and funded by the Child and Adolescent Health Branch of the Maternal and Child Health Unit of the Texas Department of State Health Services. Administered since 2000, this project’s primary focus is to monitor the nutritional health of school-aged children in Texas. Through data collection in schools across the state, SPAN identifies factors in Texas students that may underlie overall health (including dietary behaviors, physical activity levels, sedentary behaviors, oral health, and nutrition knowledge/attitudes) and allows researchers to track trends in childhood obesity.  

With the recent SPAN 2019-2020 data release, the team is hoping to spread the word and use the data to promote positive change in individuals and in communities, and to inform Texas policy. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Deanna Hoelscher, Director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living and the Regional Dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin. As principal investigator for Texas SPAN, Dr. Hoelscher had a lot to say regarding the data, trends, and the future of the project. 

When comparing the trends between 2015-16 and 2019-2020 datasets, Dr. Hoelscher shared a few concerns: 1) increasing rates of obesity at all grades measured, 2) lower physical activity levels, and 3) a high prevalence of snack food consumption. However, these were not all surprising - with policies aimed at preventing childhood obesity weakened or not funded in recent years, these unfortunate changes can be expected. Dr. Hoelscher also shared some positive changes, with school children in the state having a positive self-image, good oral health habits, assisting with meal preparation at home, and drinking water. 

With COVID-19, many of our other public health concerns, like childhood obesity, have taken an understandable back seat. However, many of these public health concerns have been associated with severity of COVID-19. “We need to connect the dots between overall health and health threats like COVID-19,” Dr. Hoelscher says. We have proof that obesity prevention programs work in schools and early education, so we must engage children in these programs while we can. Prevention programs are much less effective in adults. 

Dr. Hoelscher urges us to bring nutrition, physical activity levels, and excess body weight to people’s attention as major public health issues. We can use these data to make changes at  individual, community, and policy levels.  

You can review the 2015-2016 Texas SPAN datasets online here: https://span-interactive.sph.uth.edu/  

Written by: 

Kelsi Peterson 

Dell Health Undergraduate Scholar, Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living 

BSW Undergraduate Student, St. Edward’s University