So many children are overweight today that there is talk of an obesity pandemic.
Exercise is key to keeping kids — all of us — healthy and fit, along with our diet. Plus, physical activity has been shown to have all sorts of benefits for children’s academic performance, including helping them to focus better and even making them (and all of us) smarter.
Yet, many school districts around the nation are cutting physical education classes and not providing students with the recommended amount of hours of PE per week. Principals frequently invoke budget cuts as the reason for lessening, or eliminating, PE, as well as the need to spend more time preparing students for standardized tests.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has made public health a priority during his years in office, most recently with his well-publicized ban on the sale of large-size sodas. But while, ten years ago, 14.4 percent of NYC high school students said they had no PE classes in a week, that figure has now risen to 20.5 percent. Nationwide, nearly half of high schoolers told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they have no PE classes in an average week.
Even in a city with a reputation for healthy living, San Francisco, only 20 percent of the elementary schools meet California’s requirement that students have 20 minutes per day of PE.
Other disquieting statistics:
Anatola Elementary School in Van Nuys, California, has no gym and no gym teachers.
The Miami-Dade School District in Florida came thisclose to cutting PE for middle school students, period.
As the parent of a 15-year-old boy, I can say that cutting PE for middle schoolers — struggling through puberty and finding themselves without recess and playgrounds — is an unfortunate proposition. Charlie absolutely needs to run around and engage his physical strength and energy. But PE was infrequent when he was in special education classes in various New Jersey towns. Indeed, at one elementary school, he had PE once a week on Friday afternoon.
Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has suggested actually ”injecting language into the federal budget” to create ”incentives for schools to report how much physical activity students are getting.” At his urging, the Government Accountability Office has investigated the issue and reported in February that “while schools appeared more aware of the benefits of physical education, ‘they have reduced the amount of time spent’ on such classes,” says the New York Times.
In other words, schools are glad to talk about the importance of PE and cite requirements, but it is a different matter about actually implementing them. In the New York Times, Kathleen Grimm, New York City’s deputy schools chancellor for operations, trumpets that the city has been “honored, nationally, for a program to assess students’ fitness and that 850,000 pupils had completed the program this year.”
But assessing fitness is one thing and actually having PE programs and instructors, who actually teach students, are two very different matters.
Small measures such as ten-minute “fitness breaks” — in which students in a science class might stand up and clap out heart beats — sound like positive steps to teach students about integrating physical activity in their daily routines. But the less than stellar report card about PE for students, in the US in general and in New York City in particular, is a reminder that, in addressing the obesity pandemic, we need to do more than say “no” to soda. It’s just as vital to say “yes” to physical activity.
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Photo of an increasingly rare scene -- gym class -- in many schools by zhurnaly