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New Priorities Leave PE, Obese Children Behind

Students are gaining weight as schools across the country lower their physical education standards to meet academic requirements.

September 15, 2003|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Missing from the schedule of many students this year is one class that used to be a given: physical education. From North Carolina to Hawaii, gym classes have been squeezed out of the school day -- a trend that parallels a national increase in childhood obesity.

In 1991, 4 in 10 high school students took daily PE classes; 10 years later, barely a third did. In 1980, just 5% of school-age children were severely overweight; 20 years later, the number had jumped to 15%.

Few would argue that the one trend is completely responsible for the other, but a lack of physical activity -- in school or out -- is a significant contributor to obesity.

For an increasing number of schools faced with shrinking budgets and growing demands for improved academic performance on standardized tests -- mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- physical education is a luxury they can no longer afford.

"It's a terrible, terrible decision," said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Assn. "Do you cut math and reading, or do you cut PE? ... There's a lot more to this thing we call learning than simply test scores."

Other factors contribute to the obesity epidemic, including school lunches loaded with fat and vending machine junk food on and off campus. But officials increasingly point to the loss of physical education classes as one of the culprits.

Among the agencies that have begun to focus on the problem is the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Howell Wechsler, a health scientist in the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, says society should take advantage of the time children are in school to teach them "the skills and attitudes needed to embrace a physically active lifestyle."

The need for in-school exercise was underscored in the results of a recent national survey by the CDC that found that almost two-thirds -- 61.5% -- of 9- to 13-year-olds participate in no organized physical activities outside of school. More than a fifth -- 22.6% -- engage in no physical activity in their free time.

"Schools are not going to be able, on their own, to reverse this obesity epidemic," Wechsler acknowledged. "But they're an important part of the puzzle."

The CDC, the American Heart Assn. and the National Assn. for Sports and Physical Education are among the many organizations that recommend daily PE from kindergarten through 12th grade. Physical activity offers clear short- and long-term health benefits; in addition, most health scientists believe that children who exercise regularly perform better academically.

Illinois is the only state to mandate daily PE from kindergarten through 12th grade. And even there, physical education classes are not a sure thing. A recent survey estimated that fewer than 10% of the state's elementary schools complied with the law.

Some states require daily PE in elementary school, but requirements in virtually all states decline as children age. Until recently, students in most states had to take a year or two of PE in high school to graduate.

Minnesota recently eliminated physical education as a graduation requirement, and a new Florida law allows high school students to graduate in three years by skipping PE and some electives.

And roughly one-third of all high schools give students another out: If they participate in band, cheerleading, school sports teams or similar activities, they are exempt from physical education requirements.

In Hawaii, where 1 in every 4 children is obese and there are no minimum PE requirements for elementary and middle schools, the state Board of Education is considering reducing the graduation requirement from one year of high school PE to one semester.

"The curriculum is light on PE," said department spokesman Greg Knudsen, "but we do have year-round accessibility to outdoor sports."

Even California's relatively tough requirements -- elementary schools must offer an average of 20 minutes of PE per day; middle and high schools must offer an average of 40 minutes per day; and high school students must take PE for two years to graduate -- have produced disappointing results.

Only 24% of the state's fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders met minimal physical fitness standards last year.

Dianne Wilson-Graham, who directs physical education in California, noted that the state does not enforce its requirements. "There are a lot of demands on teachers," she said.

In North Carolina, James F. Causby, superintendent of Johnston County schools, sees overweight students and knows that additional PE classes would promote fitness, new skills and, very likely, better learning.

"We do not provide as much physical education as we would like to," Causby said. "We don't give it to elementary school students every day, and some middle school students don't get it at all." To graduate, high school students need one year of PE.

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