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California and the West

Southland Schools Pump Up P.E. Programs

Fitness: Educators use physical activity to counter students' unhealthy habits.

September 28, 2000|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

With California's emphasis shifting to tougher academic standards in recent years, "phys ed" has been all but benched at many schools.

The retreat from physical fitness, also driven by spending cuts and overcrowding, is teaming with teens' love for doughnuts, colas and fast food to create a health crisis of potentially huge proportions.

A new study released this week revealed that a disturbingly large number of California teenagers are getting fatter and unhealthier as they spend more time watching TV and playing video games than sprinting around the soccer field or pedaling around the block.

To counter the decline in physical activity, and recognizing that fitness is as vital as the three Rs, many schools are injecting new vigor into their physical education programs by updating and expanding the definition of exercise. The trend is particularly apparent in the middle grades.

At Arthur E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, students learn to juggle, scale walls, take power walks and play Frisbee golf. At Van Nuys Middle School, pupils fall from picnic tables into the arms of classmates, an exercise that combines physical activity with lessons in "cooperative learning" and trust. Lennox Middle School hopes to raise funds to install a climbing wall to complement its gym, ball fields and fitness room.

Instructors say they sense that students find such activities more fun than the traditional volleyball, flag football and softball. Although some of those sports still have a place, they have been supplemented with activities that often require as much brain as brawn.

Other efforts have been made to make P.E. more appealing. Gone at many schools, for example, is the embarrassing agony of the post-P.E. communal shower that plagued young adolescents in years past.

"There has been a real emphasis--and there needs to be a real emphasis--on reading, math and science. But, based on the research, we feel nutrition and physical activity help student achievement," said Betty Hennessy, a consultant with the Los Angeles County Department of Education.

She is among a cadre of educators attempting to enliven interest in P.E. in a state where high school students are required to participate only two of their four years.

Though many administrators are aware that children are embracing unhealthy habits at younger ages, they feel frustrated by a lack of space and resources.

At many elementary schools, class-size reduction and rising enrollments have led to a proliferation of portable classrooms, which eat into playground space.

Meanwhile, the pressure to boost Stanford 9 test scores has made many teachers reluctant to devote time to physical activity. Instead, many children spend their recess indoors drilling on phonics and math.

Yet evidence is mounting that children avoid physical activity at their own peril. In a survey of more than 1,200 12- to 17-year-olds, released Monday, the Berkeley-based Public Health Institute found that nearly a third were overweight or nearly so. Fewer than one in three got the recommended hour of daily physical activity.

Meanwhile, studies of youngsters have shown an explosion of cases of chronic diseases related to nutrition and weight. Those include Type 2 diabetes, particularly among Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans.

Research by two UCLA pediatricians indicates the problems start when children are quite young.

Charlotte Neumann and Wendy Slusser, both childhood nutrition specialists, found obesity in about half of more than 900 Latino, African American and Asian American elementary school students at 14 Los Angeles campuses in low-income neighborhoods.

"These kids weren't just overweight. They had increased fat folds and a high body mass," Neumann said. "Even the second-graders arrived roly-poly."

In interviews, the youngsters confessed to eating gobs of junk food and watching hour upon hour of television. In families from Mexico, the researchers found, the mothers tended to serve a full meal to children when they got home from school at 3 p.m. Then, Neumann said, the children "snack, snack, snack until they go to bed."

To be sure, many of the children lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods where parents were reluctant to let them roam. But schools were not making up for the lack of physical activity at home.

In the elementary grades, P.E. duties are handled by classroom teachers, who are required to take just one physical fitness class and often must operate with no equipment. At many overcrowded campuses, kickball gets squeezed in around portable classrooms.

"The poorer the school, the worse it is," Neumann said.

Jim Nicholas Messrah, principal at Hobart Elementary School, said teachers at his predominantly Latino campus in Koreatown support P.E. as a good release for energetic children. But it is far from a top priority.

"It comes someplace after reading, writing, arithmetic, language and science," he said.

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