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EDUCATION : Poor Eating and Exercise Habits Spell Declining Student Fitness

November 08, 1990|MARY YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES and Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at an area high school. She writes an occasional column on education for The Times

With the profusion of gyms, bike paths and health food stores in Southern California, you might expect local students to be trim, fit and active. But recent fitness tests by the respected California Assessment Program show that our children are just the opposite.

More than 900,000 California students took fitness tests that included sit-ups, pull-ups, a mile run, a sit-and-reach flexibility test and an optional body-fat measurement. Only 21% of seventh-graders and 26% of ninth-graders were able to meet four of the five requirements.

Locally, the results were even worse. In Los Angeles County, only 17% of seventh-graders and 19% of ninth-graders satisfied four of the five requirements.

Local physical fitness teachers are not surprised by the CAP results. They agree that fitness and health among teen-agers are declining, and they cite two causes: lack of exercise and a poor diet.

Mitchell Miller, a fitness teacher at Marina del Rey Junior High School, contends that television is the greatest temptation away from exercise. "They're not getting involved in activities outside school as much as they used to," he said. "Now they just go home and watch TV."

My own students seem to fit this trend toward inertia. Only three of the 19 students on my school newspaper staff said that they exercise regularly. But those who did not blamed school work--not television--as the main obstacle to exercising. "I don't really have time for it because I always have so much homework," said Liza Potter, 15.

It seems that students' eating habits are as harmful as their exercise habits. The main source of teens' dietary problems are the fast-food chain restaurants that surround many schools, Santa Monica High School basketball coach Debbie Skaggs contends. "The kids are eating too many high-cholesterol foods, fattening foods and fried foods," she said.

Most public junior and senior high schools allow students to leave campus at lunchtime. As a result, the students often eat their largest meal of the day at a hamburger or fried chicken stand.

Despite these negative influences, however, parents can still help their children shape up with a few simple and inexpensive steps.

Begin by purifying your child's diet. "They need more of the basics," said Steve Gould, Miller's colleague at Marina del Rey Junior High. "Give them more carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, rice, beans and pasta."

Skaggs agreed. She recommended a diet that included fruit and a good cereal for breakfast, and lean meat, such as chicken, for dinner. Above all, "stay away from fried foods," she said.

Encourage your child to avoid fast-food lunches by packing a decent bag lunch. Surprisingly, my students said that a good homemade lunch would actually keep them out of burger joints.

"I start out the day wanting to eat right," said Rob Baker, 16, "but if there's nothing at home to pack for lunch, I always end up eating fast food."

Keep a bowl of fruit on or near the television since, like it or not, your child probably spends a lot of time there. No-mess fruit, such as apples or bananas, are most attractive because they're easy to grab and eat.

In most cases, it would be a losing battle to try to eliminate sweets, but sweets can be minimized without undue stress. Ration the junk food as though it were spending money. Instead of just leaving an open box of cookies in the cabinet, hide it in a safe place and distribute the sweets after dinner.

Once the diet is on track, help your child vent some of that new energy by making an exercise program. "It just takes 30 minutes a day, three times a week," said Skaggs. "That's not much."

"Take an active part," suggested Gould, "and show them that you care about exercise too." Bike riding, bowling, jogging or just walking after dinner can be pleasant parent-child activities.

Enroll your child in a sports program at a nearby park. Most city programs offer a variety of sports, including basketball, swimming, volleyball and softball. These programs are usually free or inexpensive.

If it's financially feasible, try the YMCA, which is popular among the teens who do exercise. "They have weight machines to build muscles and a Stairmaster for cardiovascular health," noted Kim Einhorn, 17. The YMCA also offers swimming and gymnastics lessons, basketball and other sports.

Pop Warner football, Little League baseball and Bobby Sox softball are old favorites, of course, but not all neighborhoods have these programs, and equipment costs can run $100 or more per season.

Starting your child on a fresh diet and exercise program may seem drastic and time-consuming. But consider the alternative. "Twenty years from now," Skaggs predicts, "I think there's going to be a higher rate of heart disease. (These kids) will be obese adults who are having a lot of heart attacks, and that's sad because we now have the facilities and knowledge to prevent that."

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