- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 26, 2000

The fifth-graders are eager to pick up their lacrosse sticks. They sit cross-legged on the floor of the gym at Mantua Elementary School near Fairfax City, going over the rules and origins of the game with physical education teacher Cheryl Thompson.

When it finally is time to play, the girls and boys dash to the field. They are running around. They are shouting to teammates and encouraging one another. They are following rules. They are having fun.

They should be doing this more often, some educators say.

The children at Mantua are in physical education class for two 40-minute sessions a week, which is typical for elementary schools in this area. But it is far below the recommended 30 minutes daily (for elementary students) and 50 minutes daily (for middle and high school students) recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The school day hasn't changed since we were an agricultural society," says Howell Wechsler, a health scientist for the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health. "There is so much more to get in during a school day now with all the scientific knowledge children need, but it does crowd out art, music, dance and physical education. All of these subjects are important. We have an additional imperative because childhood obesity is epidemic."

Indeed, about one in five American children is overweight, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That is more than double the number from 30 years ago.

Inactive children can turn into inactive and overweight adults, who will be at high risk for such problems as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. So not only is it important for schoolchildren to get more time in the gym, it also is important for them to learn how their bodies work so they can care for those bodies throughout their lifetimes, Mr. Wechsler says.

"Physical education should be a true academic experience," he says. "We should be giving kids the skills, motivation and knowledge they need to stay active for a lifetime."

In general, parents seem to agree. In a survey by the NASPE earlier this year, 91 percent of 1,017 adults said they believe physical education does not interfere with a child's academic needs. Yet more than the remaining 9 percent 15 percent said schools should concentrate on academics and leave physical activity for after school.

It is unlikely that more physical education will become part of a student's day in this era of standardized tests and competitive college admissions.

"If you talk to the school board, they say phys ed is a good thing," says Mary Marks, health and physical education coordinator for the Fairfax County Schools. Ms. Marks adds that daily physical education was dropped as a graduation requirement in Fairfax County more than 10 years ago.

"There is so much pressure on core academics these days," she says. "So we have to make sure what we are offering is quality. We have to make sure schools are not starved for resources and that time spent in PE will pay off in the long term."

Getting a physical education

Mantua's Ms. Thompson has been a physical education teacher for 28 years. The amount of time elementary students spend in the gym hasn't changed necessarily, she says, but the children and the world around them have. There are more latchkey children who are told to stay in the house after school. It isn't safe for many children simply to ride bicycles until dark.

"Unfortunately, our society is an indoor society," she says. "I am not going to make them physically fit in two classes a week. What I can do is provide the tools to show them how to be fit."

Ms. Thompson says she hopes what she is teaching in gym class also will have an impact on the children as citizens.

"There are valuable lessons that come from physical education," she says. "I am teaching core virtues how to relate to the activities, respect for your teammates, trustworthiness. When they play lacrosse, for instance, the children oversee the whole thing. They have to make up the rules and call their own game. That involves honesty and trust. These are lifetime skills."

The emphasis a generation ago may have been on calisthenics and the rope climb. These days, physical education teachers are trying to introduce children to sports they may be able to play for the rest of their lives. A gym class today is likely to contain an aerobic dance lesson, weight-training session or table-tennis tournament, activities today's students can do as tomorrow's adults.

"I think physical education should include things that children can focus on for the rest of their lives," says Laura Cross, mother of an eighth-grader at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston. At Langston Hughes, for example, students recently participated in a fitness "fun run."

Two years ago, Ms. Thompson introduced golf to Mantua's students with the hope that some children would get out and play with their parents. She set up a course with holes the size of hula-hoops on Mantua's playing field.

"Physical education has had to shift its focus to consumer education," says Judith Young, executive director of NASPE. "We have to directly address the issue that they may love soccer now at age 12 but might not when they are 35, so how about aerobics or golf? We need to show children that they still have a responsibility to keep themselves healthy and fit."

Stephen Robbins, content specialist for health and physical education for the D.C. Public Schools, says skills learned during physical education class are, in some ways, just as important as those gained in any other classroom.

"If I don't learn the capitals of all 50 states, I will live," he says, "but if I can't tread water, I will drown."

D.C. elementary students take an average of 30 to 50 minutes of physical education a week, Mr. Robbins says.

In the inner city, if children aren't going to learn about exercise in class, they may not learn it anywhere, Mr. Robbins says.

"In urban areas, kids don't have the role models for health and fitness," he says. "And they don't have access to facilities. My concern is that they learn how to plot out a fitness program as they get older. We need to show them that they can walk 10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the evening. They don't all have to be superathletes."

High school, low fitness

Only one state Illinois requires that children receive daily physical education through 12th grade. By about 10th or 11th grade in other schools nationwide, physical education usually is an elective, and most students elect not to take it.

In Maryland, the District and Virginia, the amount of time high school students spend in the gym varies from district to district. State law mandates certain amounts of physical education for students to graduate, but all are short of the four years of daily classes recommended by NASPE.

Ms. Young says more than one third of American high school students do not participate in physical activity on a regular basis. CDC researchers, meanwhile, surveyed 15,349 students at 144 high schools nationwide. In 1991, 42 percent were receiving daily physical education. By 1999, that number was down to 29 percent.

While many high school students participate in activities such as cheerleading and team sports, those outlets do not take the place of a quality physical education program, Ms. Young says.

"Sports are prevalent in middle-class communities," she says. "In lower-class communities, they are either not available or only available for kids whose parents have money and resources. The children who participate in sports teams are the ones who are naturally athletic. Playing in a soccer league, the message is, 'How can we teach them to be good by Saturday?' not the value of physical activity."

In Howard County, an innovative semester-long program aims to teach that value. The Lifetime Fitness course, which is mandatory for freshmen, was designed to make up for the lack of hours students spend in physical education, says Don Disney, coordinator of physical education and athletics for Howard County schools.

"If we are not going to have kids in PE daily, we need to give them the tools to set up their own fitness programs," he says. In Lifetime Fitness, students learn about muscle strength and endurance, cardiovascular fitness, body composition and the role of proper nutrition. Students learn to test body fat with a skin-caliper test and graph where their target heart rate should be. For the final exam, students identify and set up their own fitness program.

"I think they retain the knowledge," Mr. Disney says. Some of the most popular electives in the upper grades are weight training and aerobics, circuit training or acting as a personal trainer for senior citizens, he adds.

"The stress on academics in our schools is great," Mr. Disney says, "but what sense is [there in] pouring all that money into gray matter if the body collapses prematurely?"

More money, better programs?

Recent legislation introduced on Capitol Hill seeks to improve physical education programs. Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, introduced the Physical Education for Progress (PEP) Act in May 1999.

The bill requests $400 million over five years for grants to local schools and school districts. The money ideally would be used to offer daily physical education classes, improve equipment and improve teacher training.

No action has been taken on the bill yet.

Even if the bill doesn't go any further, schools still need to pay attention to physical fitness, Mr. Wechsler says.

"We have to figure out a way to keep kids active," he says. "Unless the schools teach kids these skills, it is not going to happen."

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