The start of the school year can both excite and overwhelm us. Major transitions like suddenly becoming the new kid in school, or entering middle or high school, are especially stressful – and bring on real anxiety that can cause sleep problems. Time crunches from new schedules add even more stress for students and parents alike, making nutritious family meals more of a “maybe” than a norm.

Night after night of shortened sleep creates a “sleep deficit.” When we’re not working with a full tank of zzzs, it’s harder to concentrate on school work and other activities. Add stress into the mix and look out for mood swings, overeating and eventual weight gain. It’s hard to believe, but too little sleep and too much stress can be partially responsible for piling on extra pounds.

Why? Sleep deprivation and the inability to manage stress play key roles in metabolism. After we go to sleep, our body stays awake to get things done, like regenerating cells and relaxing muscles. But when we don’t get enough sleep, our body has to do those things in addition to giving us energy for whatever’s keeping us up. That’s why tired and stressed-out people often feel hungrier than normal, and crave fat, salt and sugar. (Hence the late-night snack.)

Back-to-school schedules and commitments can make adequate sleep and nutritious family meals seem an impossible task. But it can be done – and should be to keep you all on track to a calmer, more productive school year.
PARENTS: Use your  purse power

Try as we might, we can’t control the people around us – including our kids. But we can be a positive influence. To be the wind beneath your star student’s wings this year:

1. Encourage more sleep.
2. Help them (and yourself) find ways to manage stress.
3. Plan ahead for healthier meals.

The first step to a well-rested teen?Take a look at their bedtime routine and
help them establish these habits:

  • Determine a realistic bedtime that provides at least 8 hours of sleep (let them do the math of backing it out from wake-up time).
  • Power off all LED screens at least 30 minutes before bed. Research shows LED lights stimulate the pupils which decreases melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” making us more alert.
  • Set a “screen time cutoff” and set up a family charging station away from bedrooms where kids “check in” all electronics before bed then check them back out again the next morning. This way, no one’s tempted to stay up late texting or gaming – or staring into that LED light!
  • Cut down on overall stimulants like caffeine in soda, tea and energy drinks, especially in the afternoon. Individual caffeine sensitivity differs, but less is always better when it comes to encouraging better sleep.
  • Spend a few minutes together at lights-out and become part of your child’s restful routine. This may be the only downtime in the day to hear about what’s really going on in their school and social life.

If your child seems to get enough sleep but is still tired, visit your doctor to rule out other health problems.

Bullies and cliques and grades,
oh my! Add driving, dating,
and drama to the mix and the
teen existence is anything
but carefree. Help ease the
inevitable stress through family
time, exercise and extracurricular
activities. Here’s how:
  • Limit screen time outside of school to 2 hours a day. 
  • Make sure kids move at least 1 hour a day. Endorphins released during exercise contribute to feelings of well-being and may contribute to better sleep too.
  • Mutually agree on healthy escapes: music, alone time, sports, meeting up with friends.
  • Show genuine interest in whatever excites your teen – even if skateboarding or scrapbooking isn’t your thing.
  • Make an official appointment on your calendar to spend one-on-one time in an activity of his/her choice at least once a month.

Despite early starts and late evenings, the whole family can
still eat well. It may mean youinclude a few grab-and-go snacks or the occasional meal on the run, but planning ahead is the key to healthy nutrition. Include your kids in decision-making so they feel a sense of control.
  • Although they may be the last to admit it, teens mimic parental behavior. This includes what they put on their plate! Spend time together at the table whenever possible and model a healthy diet. Try to create weekly meal plans for efficient shopping and reduced cost. Look at, or online tools to help with the plan. Looking for great new, healthy and simple recipes? Search USAF FitFamily archives. And for a little extra help with weight control, look to USAF LivingFit for the advice, tips and motivation you need.
  • Shop, prep and store as many items as possible in advance to ease weeknight meal duty.
  • Pack lunches and set the breakfast table the night before because every morning minute counts!
  • Have fresh “fast food” on hand: cut-up fruit, string cheese, yogurt, raw nuts and cold cuts for before and after school rush hours.
  • For fast, healthy last-minute meals, stock whole grain rice and pasta, chicken broth, tomato sauce, canned beans and frozen vegetables. Prepare to be amazed by what you can throw together just from the pantry and freezer.


When you’re a busy student, getting enough sleep, keeping stress to a minimum and eating right are easier said than done.

Most teens feel like there are never enough hours in the day. Overloaded schedules packed with schoolwork and extracurricular activities leave little time to surf the web, text or hang out with friends. Even when you try to get to bed early, all the stress of the day keeps you lying awake!  It sounds crazy, but not sleeping enough and being stressed out all the time can actually lead to overeating and weight gain.

You only need to remember three things to master the back-to-school balancing act: sleep more, stress less, eat good food.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Old habits are hard to break and new ones can take months to master. So don’t expect to change your sleeping, coping or eating habits overnight! Be realistic, set a few small goals, and be patient with yourself. Recruit a family member or friend to keep you accountable and be sure to celebrate your success!

It’s easy to replace sleep time with
other activities, but when you do,
you’re affecting everything from
your mood to your test scores. Not
sleeping enough can make you
a worse driver, sink your sports
performance and even make you
more prone to getting sick. So, make
time for sleep and it will pay you back!

  • Be active during the day, but try not to exercise right before bed – that may make you more alert.
  • Get into a routine at night and stick to it.
  • Read a book, listen to music, spend time with family or pet to unwind ... whatever relaxes you.
  •  Make your bedroom a tech-free sanctuary at least 30 minutes before lights-out. It’s too hard for anyone to ignore texts and IMs at bedtime – and the LED light from screens makes you less sleepy.

Lots of teens feel overworked and
tense. The best stress buster?
Take time to do the things you
 enjoy. Even just a 15-minute study
break to play the guitar, do some
yoga poses, walk outside or draw
will help you unwind. Here are a
few other ideas:

  • Prepare for big tests by studying a little each day to avoid all-nighters.
  • Meditate, learn breathing exercises and visualization techniques to relax when you’re in stressful situations.
  • Get a workout – endorphins boost your mood and help calm your mind.
  • Hang out with friends who share your views. They might be stressed about the same stuff, and it will be a relief to hear you’re not alone!

Eating healthier food? For real?
Yes. Don’t let “no time” take a
bite out of your nutrition.

  • Get involved! Help shop for family meals, or at least add a few healthy items to the list. Think high protein, low sugar, unprocessed carbs, fresh fruits and vegetables. (Then don’t forget to actually EAT those foods!)
  • For a quick breakfast, try whole grain cereal with milk, whole grain toast with peanut butter or toast with a slice of cheese or meat, a veggie omelet, eggs with black beans & salsa, raw nuts, fresh fruit, or yogurt.
  • Be prepared for the occasional late-night study session by planning fun but healthy snacks like cheese and whole grain crackers, fruit, popcorn, smoothies, pretzels or whole grain chips and salsa.
  • Avoid overeating your snacks by putting food into a bowl – and not eating out of the bag.
  • Don’t eat in front of a screen! You’ll be more mindful of what you’re eating and how much you’re enjoying it.

Teen Health STRESS CENTER Nemours

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
 vol. 110 no. 14, Rachel R. Markwald,  5695–5700
Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain

Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation Jeffrey S. Durmer, M.D., Ph.D.,1 and David F. Dinges, Ph.D.2
Seminars in Neurology/Volume 25, Number 1 2005


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