Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Physical Education Equals Better Grades At School

On a recent afternoon at a public school in New York’s East Village, a mass of first and second graders barreled into a recreation room and charged toward a pile of hula hoops.

Even before the lesson began, the children launched into a flurry of made-up games, dances, jumps and spins. Soon, J. Alexander Nixon, a 27-year-old counselor with the Oasis for Children after-school program, brought the crowd to attention with his first challenge of the day. All the children then joined in a traditional hula spin, the first set in a 30-minute aerobic class for kids called Hula in Motion.

“Parents are more apprehensive about letting their kids play on the street these days,” said Nixon as he wiped sweat from his brow. “With this hula hoop exercise, they get a full workout.”

If the children in this group are like the majority of American children, this after-school hula-hoop class will have been the most, if not the only physically active period during their day.

Fewer than one in four children gets 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although experts now recommend one hour.

Another CDC study determined that on average, only about 7 percent of today’s schoolchildren receive any daily physical education.

Some worry that this has contributed to a national epidemic of inactivity. And since 1980, the number of overweight children has doubled, making this generation of youngsters the most overweight children in U.S. history, according to the CDC. Of these children, an estimated 70 percent will probably become overweight adults, increasing their chances for developing ailments like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression.

As more American children show signs of obesity, new physical fitness programs are springing up across the country despite often limited resources (the Hula in Motion program is paid for in part by parent fees and some state funding).

Fitness advocates are seeking to transform physical education into a lifestyle that incorporates physical activity, health and wellness. And while the health benefits of exercise are obvious, more experts are also pointing out that physically fit students do better academically.

Physical education classes appeared in American schools prior to World War I after the federal government mandated them for the purpose of military readiness.

During the 1980s and '90s, thanks to tight budgets and a refocusing of state curriculums, the number of physical education programs started to dwindle nationwide. More recently, local school districts came under tremendous pressure after the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 to pass standardized tests or face cuts in federal funding.

“No Child Left Behind came on board and suddenly the focus was on testing,” noted Phil Lawler of Naperville, Ill., who has been a middle school coach for 34 years. “Federal funding is going to be cut if they don’t get their reading, math and science scores up,” said Lawler, who is also academy director at PE 4 Life, a national nonprofit organization that promotes quality daily physical education programs.

But advocates like Lawler point to data that shows students actually do better on tests when they are more physically fit.

“If you have more active and fit kids, you are going to see positive changes in test scores,” said Dr. Retta Evans, a health education professor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

One example that supports Evan’s assertion is a study by the California Department of Education conducted in 2002. A statewide standardized math and reading test of all fifth, seventh and ninth graders in California public schools concluded that there was a direct correlation between higher test scores in math and reading and higher levels of fitness.

“Physical exercise is the best way to optimize the brain,” said Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The public has been unaware of the connection.”

Despite such data, advocates say, changing people's perceptions about physical education and making it a priority will take tremendous effort.

“Many administrators have the opinion that PE stands for poor excuse for teacher,” said Nancy Bailey, a health and physical education teacher in Kansas City, Mo.

Programs like PE 4 Life are attempting to change that by educating school districts and community groups through fitness “academies" based on a model devised by Lawler.

PE for Life’s teaching philosophy focuses on wellness and sports rather than athletic skill by grading students on how long they stay in their heart rate zone, rather than how well they throw a ball.

PE 4 Life was instrumental in securing the creation of a national Physical Education for Progress grant program, which has been used to enhance physical education programs across the country. Sixty-three grants of up to $250,000 are awarded each year for training teaching professionals in modern health and wellness-based physical education and for acquiring modern fitness equipment.

Beyond grants, physical education programs in public schools are established at the state and local level. Most states do not require physical education, leaving local districts to decide how much PE to provide and how to pay for it.

For now, programs like New York’s Oasis is working to keep children active and fit through a positive healthy environment, which instructors hope will benefit them beyond the exercise class.

“We hope to arm our children with the tools and confidence to succeed in life” said Rachel Lynn of Oasis. “Obviously, one of those is physical fitness.”

Nixon, the Oasis counselor, says that even though children may not yet recognize the benefits of twirling a hoop, they respond with gusto.

“They light up," he said. “It gives them confidence which helps them all around.”

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