Following this Labor Day weekend, virtually all of the nation's students in grades K-12 will be back in school. Unfortunately, fewer of them will be participating in physical education classes and intramural sports programs.
It's mind-boggling that at a time when overweight and obesity levels are sky-high among our young people, and physical activity levels are down, our schools are cutting physical education classes, recess and intramural sports programs.
Due to No Child Left Behind mandates and the pressures of standardized state assessment tests, many schools are cutting back on physical education and recess under the mistaken belief that kids need more desk time to improve test scores. Based on the latest research on exercise and the brain, that's the direct opposite approach that schools should be taking.
"Overall, I don't think there's any doubt that schools are feeling pressure from No Child Left Behind and standardized tests," according to Brenda VanLengen, Vice Chair of PE4life, a physical education advocacy organization.
In response, they are doing things like dropping PE classes in order to create more time in the classroom. Instead, they should be getting kids more ready to learn through quality physical education and physical activity during the school day. Based on the research, their current approach is misguided. If each school would incorporate quality fitness-based PE programs -- ideally daily, but at least three days a week -- we would have healthier kids, academic performance would go up, and behavioral problems would drop. The research has consistently proven this.
The overall health implications of the decline in physical activity in our schools are certainly scary. For example, Type 2 diabetes once was considered an adult disease, hence the term "adult-onset diabetes." However, because more kids are overweight and obese, the incidence of the disease has increased dramatically in children and adolescents.
If current trends hold, diabetes is expected to afflict a third of the population by 2050 (obesity, a prime cause of diabetes, will afflict half the population by 2030 at the current rate). The expected annual cost of diabetes in 2034, according to a recent academic study, is $336 billion.
Meanwhile, varsity athletic programs in our high schools -- which impact a relatively small percentage of the student population -- continue to flourish.
In an era of near epidemic childhood obesity, our schools need to reverse their priorities in this area and focus on creating more physical education, intramural sports and other physical activity opportunities for the student body at large. Varsity sports programs should be a secondary consideration in schools that exist for educational purposes. Schools shouldn't be in the business of developing elite-level athletes while the majority of students within their walls are becoming increasingly inactive.
"Instead of increasing participation opportunities for all, we're subsidizing football in our schools," says author John Gerdy, a long-time athletic administrator and sports management professor. "That just doesn't make sense, especially when you consider that the vast majority of football players will never participate in another game of football after high school."
As a society, we need to fully understand and appreciate that when it comes to the importance of physical activity for health and wellbeing, we're all athletes.
"Most nations fund sports in a true pyramid fashion, with lots of money at the base for youth grassroots participation and little at the top for elite athletics," says Tom McMillen, a former U.S. Congressman from Maryland and founding chairman of the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
In America, we have inverted the pyramid. We provide little at the base for community sports and school physical education programs for our children, while lavishing public subsidies at the top, for example giving vast amounts of tax dollars to build professional sports stadiums. If we want to win the fight against child obesity, we must flip this pyramid and devote real resources to youth grassroots efforts.
Unfortunately, the trend continues to go in the wrong direction. Thirty-five years ago, daily physical education was the norm for K-12 students. Today, according to the American Heart Association, only four percent of elementary schools, seven percent of middle schools and two percent of high schools have daily physical education class for the entire school year. Twenty-two percent of schools don't require physical education class at all!
Moreover, the amount of time students spend in physical education steadily declines from kindergarten through high school. By high school, most kids in our country are basically done with P.E. The result is that elementary school kids -- who are increasingly overweight and obese themselves -- are now 24 percent more active than high school students.
It's important to note that young people who are active through high school are more active than their less-active school peers through their adult years. Active children tend to turn into active adults.
Bottom line: Our children need to move more and watch less.
"The decline in physical education, recess, and intramural sports in schools is awful," says famed sportswriter Frank Deford. "The citizenry should be concerned about that."
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans (www.leagueoffans.org)
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