Sub-par gym programs may be setting your kid up for an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes–even before adulthood.
Your kids are getting enough exercise at school because they have to take P.E. class, right? Wrong. Most states don’t meet even the minimum recommendations for physical activity of 50 to 200 minutes a week, according to a 1997 National Association for Sport and Physical Education survey. But even if your child has a regular phys ed class, she may not be getting much real exercise: One study in California found that during the course of a week, “school kids were getting only six to 20 minutes of activity, tops,” says study author James Sallis, Ph.D., professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Most of gym period was spent in such sedentary activities as lining up for attendance or watching other kids take their turns. In some schools, P.E. is just another period of recess.
Why should you care? The P.E. crisis–caused by budget cuts and lack of teacher training–is hitting home. The percentage of youngsters who are overweight has more than doubled in the past 30 years. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 percent of children ages six to 11 are overweight, as are 12 percent of adolescents.) And it’s not just from poor eating habits. “The average child in America spends more than four hours a day watching TV or playing computer or video games–usually after school. If that child isn’t getting exercise in school, it can make the difference between being normal weight and overweight,” says Sallis.
The good gym/good grade link
And here’s the take-notice surprise: Additional minutes allocated to P.E. do not result in a decrease in academic performance. In a study involving nearly 800 children, Paul Rosengard, executive director for Sports and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK) at San Diego State University, says kids who spent more time in P.E. scored as well or better on standardized tests than those who spent the same amount of time in another academic class. “We don’t know whether P.E. is acting as a much-needed break or whether it reinforces what kids are learning in the classroom,” he says. “But clearly, academic achievement and P.E. are linked.”
Are schools recognizing and fixing the P.E. problem? Some are, some aren’t. But there’s plenty you can do to get your kids moving more, both in school and out.
The new P.E.
“My kids would often come home complaining about the boring P.E. class they had that day. It wasn’t trivial–to them,” says Cindy Stapleton, a mother of three in Huntington Beach, California. As president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at William E. Kettler Elementary School, Stapleton wanted to improve the school’s phys ed program, but she knew there were no funds to hire a credentialed P.E. teacher. Then she discovered the SPARK program, cocreated by Sallis. Unlike classic P.E. (which has a curriculum practically unchanged since the forties and fifties and is probably the gym class you took), this new P.E. emphasizes working together in groups (versus competing teams) and promotes fitness, not sports skills.
Designed for use by elementary school teachers with little or no phys ed background, SPARK is a complete–and affordable–package that any school can implement. “Every lesson plan has a script, with goals,” says Stapleton. And instead of paying a teacher’s annual salary, SPARK is a one-time $7,500 cost. (For more information on SPARK, call 800-SPARKPE.)
School principals who are concerned about fitness are most likely to support innovative P.E. programs, but even if the opposite is true, don’t underestimate the power of parental voices raised in unison. Says Bridget Slanaker, whose fifth grader attended Moffett Elementary, also in Huntington Beach, “In my school, mothers started complaining that their children were getting hurt during P.E., which was basically an unstructured, unplanned free period. Then the principal took action.” Her school also chose the SPARK program. Funds were limited, so the school teamed up with another school to split the costs.
Parents who have successfully changed their schools’ P.E. programs advise that you:
* Back up your request with facts and figures on how a new P.E. program will be implemented and funded, how it represents an improvement over the existing curriculum, and how any liability issues will be resolved, says Gregg Rappe, a parent/teacher who fought for five years to bring in-line skating to the P.E. program at Farmington Middle School in Minnesota. (For more information on the Skate-in-School program, call 888-SK8-4FUN.)
* Be prepared to make your case to parents. “I got a lot of resistance from parents whose kids were overweight, afraid of how their kids would do at this new activity,” says Rappe. “Once the kids gained confidence and proficiency, parental complaints evaporated.”
* Look to your local community for resources. James Handlin, Ph.D., head of the Brooklyn Friends School, asked the nearby New York Marriott Brooklyn about using the guest swimming pool for his kids. “This was a win-win situation,” says Marriott general manager Ken Schwartz. “The pool is empty for the hour between checkout and check-in, and by law we have to have a lifeguard on duty when the pool is open. The schoolchildren get to swim, the lifeguard has something to do, and the hotel becomes a part of the community.” Local colleges and recreation centers may be willing to team up with your school.
WHY SEDENTARY KIDS MAKE SICKLY ADULTS
Physical inactivity is second only to smoking as a health risk, and it is a major reason why children’s obesity levels are at an all-time high, says James Hill, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. The risks that inactive kids face:
* A sedentary lifestyle almost doubles the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.
* An estimated 2.8 million children ages six to 17 have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, a major contributor to heart problems.
* “We’re seeing the most new cases of type 2 [adult-onset] diabetes in obese teens,” says Hill. Diabetes is a major risk factor for blindness, kidney failure, and vascular diseases.
* An active lifestyle early in life helps young girls and women develop and reach peak bone mass. Weight-bearing and strengthening types of exercise play substantial roles in maintaining bone mass and balancing out bone loss. Adequate bone mass is critical; bone loss may begin by mid-20’s.
PASS OR FLUNK? grading your school’s P.E. program
Go observe one of your child’s gym classes. To evaluate it, find out:
How often is P.E. taught? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Guideline for School and Community Programs recommends daily classes. At the very least, there should be three scheduled sessions a week. Time spent in recess, band practice, or athletics should not be counted toward the weekly tally.
Who’s teaching? Ideally, you want a physical education specialist; in many schools, however, a classroom teacher is also the gym teacher. If that’s the case in your school, ask if there is anyone giving that teacher guidance, either at the school or district level. Like any other teacher, the P.E. teacher must keep up-to-date with the latest issues, research, and trends.
What’s the instructor’s style? Listen for encouragement, constructive comments, and positive, specific feedback-not just whistle toots and harangues.
How many kids are in the class? Twenty-five, give or take a few, is the ideal number, just as for an academic class. The student-teacher ratio should be no higher than that in other classes.
What are they playing? Games like dodgeball, in which the least skilled are eliminated first, mean that too many kids spend time on the sidelines. What you want to see is equal participation of both sexes and all skill levels. Clock how much time the kids spend in moderate to vigorous activity (faster than a walk) during a class–it should be at least half of the time.
HOW TO SHAPE UP YOUR CHILD’S PHYSICAL EDUCATION
Set up a conference with the P.E. teacher or coach Ask about the gym curriculum and the thinking behind it. The emphasis should be on participation, self-improvement, physical development, and cooperation–not just winning. If you don’t like what you hear, voice your concerns to the principal and the parents’ association.
Do physical homework with your kids Parental interest and involvement are key to creating active kids. Ask your child what she’s learning in P.E. and practice the skills together.
Check out what’s happening after school Preteen children should get at least 60 minutes of activity a day, says Sallis. The average 40-minute P.E. class provides only about half of their daily needs, so after-school activities are key. If your school doesn’t have an after-school fitness program (or access to one), lobby your PTA and/or the school board.
Join the car pool “The most important thing a parent or caretaker can do to increase a child’s level of activity is to provide transportation to afterschool or other activities,” says Sallis.
Go the extra mile Organize weekend softball games for your child’s class, or get together a school team to participate in local charity walk-or bike-a-thons.
Turn off the TV In findings presented at the 1999 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, 192 third and fourth graders who reduced their viewing (including videotapes and video-game playing) gained significantly less fat over seven months than a control group of their peers without changing their diet or activity levels. “Kids cut the number of meals they ate in front of the TV. Plus, they may have been doing more low-level activities–moving around more–instead of just sitting in front of the TV,” says study author Thomas Robinson, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University.