Childhood Obesity: States Neglect Physical Education
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
(This is the second of a two-part series on state actions on obesity.)
More state legislatures are targeting junk food in public schools to remedy an epidemic of childhood obesity, but few are strengthening flabby physical education programs.
Phys ed classes are being squeezed out even as the number of obese children has tripled to an estimated 15 percent or about 8 million children over the past three decades, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control.
One key reason is there's less time in the school day for gym classes because of increased pressures to test children to chart academic performance. More minutes building muscles would mean less time toning test scores, said Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
"The difficulty is that the school day is already very crowded," Burgeson said. "When push comes to shove, things such as physical education get cut."
Another reason is money, as states and school systems struggle to recover from recent budget shortfalls. Lawrence, Kan., public schools, like many across the country, already alternate gym classes every third day with other non-academic subjects such as art and music, said spokeswoman Julie Boyle. Now, the school board is considering reducing gym to every fourth day as part of a $2 million package of budget cuts.
Although several state legislatures have passed resolutions encouraging more exercise in schools or new standards for gym classes, only Louisiana and Texas actually have boosted physical education programs in recent years, requiring 30 minutes daily for elementary school students. Texas, where more than 35 percent of children are obese, also is set to impose the tightest restrictions in the nation against junk food during the school day.
Illinois remains the only state where students through 12th-grade must go to gym every day. Alabama requires daily gym classes up to 8th-grade, according to the sport and physical education association.
A bill before the Florida Legislature would require daily gym or recess. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) signaled his interest in addressing the state's obesity problem with the creation of a task force late last year. But the bill hasn't moved out of committee with just three weeks left in the legislative session. Even if the legislation were to pass, school systems would take a year to study the cost and scheduling implications.
A bill approved by the New Hampshire legislature would require school systems to develop a policy on daily physical education, but schools would not be required to provide daily gym classes.
Cost and time concerns also have been raised with measures to increase gym time pending in a few other states, including Delaware, Maryland and Minnesota.
The CDC recommends that children exercise at least 30 minutes every day, yet less than one quarter of the nation's school children are active for even 20 minutes daily. Fifty-six percent of children get some physical education in school, but at least a quarter have no gym classes at all, according to the CDC.
Nationally, just 6 percent to 8 percent of schools provide the recommended daily gym class to all students, according to a 2003 report from the National Governors Association.
Childhood obesity is starting to get the attention of state lawmakers, particularly as they see state health care costs spiral because of obesity-related diseases, but much of the current legislation focuses on junk food and vending machines.
Several states have watered down their physical education requirements in recent years, despite numerous contrary warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Congress and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Georgia eliminated the legal mandate for physical education and recess in schools in 2000, leaving it up to school districts to decide how much exercise students get. In Florida and New Mexico, laws allow marching band as a substitute for physical education, according to the Education Commission of the States. And last year, Arkansas decided that 9th-graders would no longer be required to go to gym.
Oklahoma and Colorado still have no statewide requirements for physical education and allow individual school districts to set exercise standards.
Georgia eliminated both recess and physical education requirements at the same time that it raised the academic bar for public schools, said Georgia state Rep. Sally Harrell (D), who is sponsoring a bill to require a 15-minute recess at public schools in her state. "There's so much to teach, it got to the point that students couldn't take it anymore," she said.
The choice between academics and physical health is a false one, said George Graham, a kinesiology professor at Pennsylvania State University and president of the Association for National Sport and Physical Education. Students who are more physically active tend to earn better grades, he said.
Florida's 2003 task force on obesity found that students who said they received A's and B's were more likely to have exercised at least three days a week.
A recent study of more than 1,500 children in New Hampshire confirmed the flip side of that argument: Children who are overweight tend to earn lower grades.
But states and schools nowadays are more concerned with meeting reading and math requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act than ensuring that students get enough exercise, Graham said.
The education law, signed in 2002 and a centerpiece of President George W. Bush's domestic agenda, requires annual reading and math tests for all students in 3rd through 8th and 10th grade. The law also penalizes schools that don't meet annual testing targets.
What good are healthy test scores if a child develops diabetes and heart disease later in life, Graham argues. "Some places are focusing on the child's head and not their body," he said.