U.S. school districts are slashing physical education classes and recess as they require students to spend more time in the classroom to improve test scores. It may seem like an old story, but it's still a current story — except now the story has glimmers of hope, as some states are adopting new testing procedures and physical activity requirements to combat the increase in childhood obesity.
"The idea of taking physical education out of schools is the equivalent of academic malpractice," says Todd Whitthorne, the chairman of Our Kids Health Foundation and the CEO of Cooper Concepts, which is part of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. "If you make kids sit in chairs for a longer period of time, it won't make them smarter. If you get them moving during the day, you'll get them in the position to learn."
A study appearing in the Journal of School Health found that test scores on standardized math and English tests were higher for physically fit children than for less fit kids. The study of students in the Cambridge Public School District in Cambridge, MA, used a fitness assessment called the FitnessGram, which was developed at the Cooper Aerobics Center.
The FitnessGram test also was used during a two-year period by the Cooper Institute (part of the Cooper Aerobics Center) to test 2.6 million Texas elementary and high school students. The $3 million research project found that students' fitness levels dropped by each passing grade. In other words, young children were more fit than older children.
"This is slam dunk research," Whitthorne says. "Only 10 percent of the students that graduate from high schools are fit. It's hard to argue with these numbers."
Despite this research, Phil Lawler, who worked as an elementary physical education teacher for 35 years and is now the outreach director of PE4life, says that many state governments are burying their heads in the sand.
"While some people think that the childhood obesity research has served as a wake-up call, I think most of our country has hit the snooze button," he says.
Childhood Obesity Prevention
However, some states are lowering the prevalence of childhood obesity and enforcing policies and procedures. To recognize their efforts on both fronts, the University of Baltimore published an obesity report card in 2006. Dr. Ken Stanton, one of the co-authors of the report who plans to soon update the research, awarded six states with an "A" for their efforts — California, Illinois, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee. Twenty-one states earned a "B," while 23 states barely squeaked by with a C, D or F.
Stanton, who is now an associate professor at Coppin State University in Baltimore, says states earned partial credit for trying to pass legislation and full credit for passing laws to protect children. When grading the states, he and the other researchers considered factors such as school-based nutrition standards, physical education and recess requirements, obesity education and programs, vending machine access, and body mass index (BMI) tracking.
Despite positive steps in some states, often the policies, programs and procedures that are in place vary from school to school. To truly fight the epidemic, the United States must have a cohesive strategy rather than a patchwork of strategies, says Richard Hamburg, director of government relations for Trust for America's Health , Washington, DC, which publishes an annual report on obesity in America called "F as in Fat."
"The goal is to have the best policies implemented everywhere and not a few implemented here and there," says Hamburg, who compared loosely connected laws in the fight against obesity to those in the battle against smoking. "When you see more effective policies in more places, you will see a greater effect."
Physical Education Reform
In their battle against childhood obesity, many school districts focus on physical education classes, according to the University of Baltimore obesity research, but some people say physical education classes fall short. In addition, unskilled volunteers often are assigned to run afterschool physical education programs, which puts children at risk for injury, says Michael Torchia, president of Operation Fitness in Beverly Hills, CA, and founder of Children's Fitness Academy, a program that helps school administrators implement health and fitness education programs. The majority of schools also still focus on a sports model for physical education, and as a result, non-athletic students often slip through the cracks.
To break down barriers and help all children become healthy and fit, Lawler turned the typical physical education model upside down at the Naperville School District in Naperville, IL. Lawler implemented a program from PE4life, his non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring active, healthy living by advancing the development of quality, daily physical education programs. Rather than using the traditional roll-the-ball-on-the-court philosophy, he instead focused on health and wellness. Each of the district's five middle schools and two high schools feature state-of-the-art fitness centers complete with cardio, strength training and exergaming equipment. As a result of this focus on physical education, the Naperville School District's rate of obese children plummeted to 3 percent a few years ago compared to 35 percent for the national average.
Several other school districts nationwide are adding more physical education into their curriculum, too. An elementary school in Kansas City, MO, improved students' cardiovascular fitness by 200 percent by increasing physical education requirements from one day a week to five days a week. The students' discipline referrals to the main office decreased by 63 percent in the same year that the school's administrators put a PE4life program into effect.
Lack of funding can hold some school districts back from implementing better physical education classes, but Lawler says this is no excuse for not moving in this direction. Schools can partner with health clubs for fitness programs (see related Ten Ways Fitness Facilities Can Help To Curb Childhood Obesity Rates story) or raise money for exercise equipment like they do for computer labs. Schools can't afford not to invest in fitness equipment, he says.
"In my school district, I have 1,000 students, and if I could prevent one heart attack from one student, it would pay for all this equipment," he says.
From Fried Foods to Fresh Fruits
Another target of many states' campaigns against childhood obesity is the school cafeteria. Many elementary schools and high schools depend on processed food that is cheap to buy and convenient to prepare. Although children often like this food, it can leave them with limited energy and reduced brainpower, Whitthorne says.
Some states, however, are going against the grain by depending less on government subsidized food, which typically includes cheese, beef, corn and soy products rather than fruits and vegetables. Instead, they are investing in nutrient-dense, low-calorie alternatives. According to the 2008 "F as in Fat" report, 18 states have nutritional standards that exceed the level set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At an elementary school in Atlanta, the principal banned sugar from the school after personally battling diabetes and obesity. In Minnesota, the cafeteria at one Minneapolis high school contracted with local bakers, brought in whole-grain breads, and opened a smoothie and salad bar. After moving to a more nutritious lunch menu, the Baltimore school district removed deep fat fryers from its schools so the chefs would not be tempted to revert back to making French fries.
"If you look hard enough, you can find schools that are blowing up the traditional model," Whitthorne says.
Many schools, however, are moving to more nutritious menus but are not making the food flavorful or appealing to children, Torchia says. As a result, children turn to vending machines for snacks. To prevent this from happening, 27 states are shutting down soda and candy vending machines until the end of the lunch period.
Another piece of the puzzle in the fight against childhood obesity is BMI tracking. According to the "F as in Fat" report, 17 states passed BMI screening requirements or passed legislation requiring weight-related assessments.
Three years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee implemented a program in his state that required students to participate in BMI testing. If tests showed that children were overweight or obese, the school informed parents of this in a letter. Many parents protested the practice. When the state's new governor, Mike Beebe, took office, he vowed to weaken or halt the program because he says it has a negative effect on children's self-esteem. Beebe favors testing children less often and allowing parents to drop out of the program.
Although some experts say this is a step backwards, Torchia says he understands why testing inspired a public backlash.
"I think we need to get away from the numbers," says Torchia, who struggled against obesity as a teenager. "It's like putting a scale in front of them and making them weigh themselves."
Although BMI tracking is important for children who are extremely obese, in most cases, it can do more harm than good, he says. Stanton agrees, saying that although collecting data is important, it needs to be done in the right manner. Rather than singling out children, he favors making the testing process anonymous and treating it with sensitivity.
Through fitness testing, education programs and a focus on physical education, schools are working to slow the growth in childhood obesity rates and improve the health of the next generation. Concerted efforts can give more children a brighter future, Lawler says.
"It takes a village to raise a healthy child," he says.
And health club operators can be part of the process by partnering with schools, inviting children into their facilities, and lobbying state and federal legislators for legislation that could positively affect children. The more children who learn that physical activity leads to a healthy life, the more likely they will continue to include physical activity in their lives as adults.
Read the sidebar, Ten Ways Fitness Facilities Can Help to Curb Childhood Obesity Rates, for more information.