In middle and high school I kind of hated phy ed. It all seemed so awkward. I mean, you come from class and change into awkward looking uniforms like this.
Okay, they weren’t quite that bad. And then you stand around staring at your feet for awhile. Then you (if you are me) drag your 5 foot (on a good day with shoes) self out to the basketball court and kind of hope that no one throws you the ball or really expects you to make a basket. Twenty minutes or so later you head back to the locker room and face another awkward decision. Do you shower, or do you spend the rest of the day sweaty in order to preserve what’s left of the bangs that you had meticulously teased and sprayed that morning? Now, to be fair, there were some great days in PE. Archery was cool, badminton was fun, and the bowling unit was like getting a short field trip each day. But, still, it was hard not to feel like PE was somehow a waste of time. This, despite the fact that I was a kid that actually really liked being active and was part of various sports teams growing up.
Fast forward 20 years or so. That high school kid who wished she could get out of phy ed, is now a pediatrician who is a vigorous supporter of physical education for all children at all levels of education. Why the change? Well, the reasons are part anecdotal, and part data driven.
First, the anecdotal. Every day in clinic I see obese and overweight children. Every day. I ask all of these families how often their children engage in active play. For some, school PE is one of the only times they are active. I’m not saying that this is okay. Parents have a responsibility to help their family to be more active. But, there are practical and philosophical reasons why schools must play a big role. First, children spend a lot of time in school. If all of this time is sedentary, and then kids have homework (also sedentary), it leaves little time for active play. Second, schools are (hopefully) safe. Some families I talk with do not send their children outside to play or ride their bike because the neighborhood is not safe. Third, schools are a place where children first start to learn the norms and rules of society. Schools have a huge opportunity to set physical activity as a “normal” and important part of life. (So, too with school nutrition, but perhaps I will leave that for a long future post. . . ).
Now, the data. Since 1980 the obesity rate among children has tripled. As of 2008, 17% of children were obese. This year less than one third of all California students who took a basic statewide physical fitness test were able to pass all of the sections. This epidemic has long since ceased to be simply a problem of personal responsibility. There are serious public health, economic, and moral implications if we, as a society, do not attack this directly. And, yet, children are receiving much less time in PE than they used to. The time they do get is in classes of up to 80 children, per some reports.
Why? Some cite the initiation of No Child Left Behind in 2001, with its inherent emphasis on test scores in math and reading as part of the decline in funding and time devoted to physical education. As schools are forced to “teach to the test”, phy ed takes a back seat. There is growing research to suggest a positive correlation between physical fitness and activity and higher academic performance. So, in a bit of irony, schools that eliminate physical education may actually find their students do less well on academic testing.
Physical education and school sports programs (along with the arts) have also hit the chopping block as funding for education has faced increasing cuts over the last few years. Regulations in terms of the time that students must spend in PE at each level in school vary greatly from state to state. Even states with more stringent regulations, such as New York, find that many schools don’t (or more likely, cannot) comply. I fear that by saving money now, we may be costing our children dearly in terms of contributing to increased health care costs and decreased lifespan in the future.
As parents and health care providers, what can we do?
- We can learn more about minimum standards for physical activity for children. The CDC recommends 60 minutes per day of physical activity for children, of which a substantial portion may be achieved through physical education and recess.
- We can learn about our own state’s guidelines and funding levels for physical education.
- We can find out what exactly kids are doing in their physical education class. The new gold standard for PE is not only to get exercise, but to provide health education and set kids up for a lifetime of valuing physical activity. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education is a great resource for more information on what constitutes quality physical education.
- We can think outside the box in terms of what constitutes “exercise” for kids. Let’s Move.gov has some good examples for both schools and families. Many of these options are low or no cost.
- We can voice support for our local physical education programs, teachers, and after school sports.
Physical education in schools is only one potential weapon in the very complicated fight against childhood obesity. But, it could be a more vital weapon, and we should utilize it.
What do you think? Are your children in physical education classes? Is it a waste of time or a time worth saving? If you are a PE teacher, what new creative methods or philosophies are you using to improve kids’ fitness and excitement about being physically active? Are the uniforms still so bad?