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A push for phys ed

Increasing physical education time by an hour a week could have a significant effect on curbing obesity among young girls.

September 13, 2004|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Physical education class has long suffered from an image problem. Children often deem jumping jacks and chin-ups boring or goofy; parents wonder if the time would be better spent on reading skills.

But a new study makes a strong case that physical education may be the single best strategy for curbing the nation's growing child obesity problem -- at least among girls. In the first study to evaluate the effect of P.E. programs on kindergartners and first-graders, researchers found that increasing P.E. time by one hour per week could lead to a significant decline in body mass index, a measure of body fat, among girls. They projected that providing five hours of P.E. per week to kindergartners -- close to the recommended amount -- would produce a 43% reduction in the prevalence of girls that age who are overweight. About 10% of kindergarten girls are overweight now, but that would decline to about 5.8% with at least five hours of P.E. per week.

The same effect on body mass index was not observed in boys, possibly because more boys are active at that age and a larger percentage of 5- and 6-year-old girls are sedentary. The effects of P.E. on boys' weight might be observed at later ages, suggested Rand Corp. researchers who conducted the study.

Wide variations in P.E. time were found among schools participating in the study, with kindergartners averaging only 57 minutes per week of P.E. and first-graders receiving about 65 minutes per week.

"What is exciting about this study is that P.E. works for a large number of children," said Nancy Chockley, president of the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that funded the study. "Helping these kids manage their weight from an early age is so important."

The research was conducted from U.S. Department of Education data as part of a broader, long-term study of 11,192 children from 1,000 public and private schools who entered kindergarten in 1998. Results from the study are published in three medical journals; the P.E. arm of the study appears in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

P.E. has become a low priority in many schools as administrators struggle to raise test scores and meet minimum standards for academic achievement. But schools are one of the few places where child obesity can be addressed on a large scale, Chockley says. According to the federal government, the prevalence of obesity among children has doubled since 1980, and it has tripled in teens. More than 15% of children ages 6 to 19 were overweight in 2000.

"Schools are clearly burdened, and we can't leave [the obesity problem] all to the schools," she says. "But schools are where the children are, and they have to be part of the solution."

The study also examined whether obesity affects behavior and academic performance. Kindergarten girls who are overweight were found to be significantly more likely to have behavior problems such as anxiety, low self-esteem and acting out. Overweight children were also more likely to score lower on reading and math tests.

But more research is needed to determine whether obesity affects school performance and behavior or whether other factors are at work, says Ashlesha Datar, an associate economist at Rand and lead author of the studies. "Our research suggests it's the quality of the home environment that is the most important predictor of school outcomes," she says.

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