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Despite economy, schools need to provide exercise

Published April 16. 2011 09:02AM

Place him in a straightjacket, medicate him heavily, and admit him for a lengthy hospital stay: That's what I'd do if I were a psychiatrist, the state of Pennsylvania were my patient, and he explained his plan for public education.

For proposing a slightly more than $1 billion dollar overall cut to educational funding when the federal government mandate known as No Child Left Behind requires PSSA test scores to increase so that 72 percent of all students are proficient in reading (up from 63 percent in 2010) and 67 percent are proficient in math (up from 56 percent in 2010) can lead to only one diagnosis.


And while it's probably a good thing for all involved that I'm not the state's shrink except for the straightjacket makers! I hope you see the point. Someone or something can be schizophrenic without suffering from schizophrenia, for to be schizophrenic is merely to display contrary qualities or antagonistic attitudes about a single subject.

The aforementioned example of our state's plan for public education is surely an example of that. And so is the entire country's mindset when it comes to another facet of school: physical education.

While gym class is firmly established as part of American public education, it's never been a significant part, not even on the elementary-school level, and not even now despite a dramatic increase in childhood obesity. According to Dr. Phillip J. Goscienski in his syndicated column, "Stone Age Doc," an attempt to be successful on standardized tests combined with "the funding squeeze that has resulted from a sick economy [has] caused school administrators to scale back or even eliminate P.E. classes."

The irony here is that new research suggests that if higher standardized test scores are what administrators are pining for, they need to schedule more, not less, gym class. That's because Georgia Health Services University researchers have shown a significant correlation between regular exercise and the ability to think, plan, and do math in previously sedentary children.

The researchers deemed the improvement in math "remarkable" since no math lessons were administered to engender the improvement.

In fact, results published in Health Psychology and featured in an online report by Medical News found intelligence scores of overweight, sedentary 7- to 11-year-olds increased an average of 3.8 points in those subjects who exercised 40 minutes per day after school for three months. The group who exercised for 20 minutes improved as well, but not nearly as much.

And even though the increase in intelligence is impressive, a more important, school-related discovery trumped it. The exercise regiment increased activity in the part of the brain responsible for what psychologists call executive function, the ability to stay on task, control attention, and make sound choices.

About this, Dr. Catherine Davis, clinical health psychologist and the corresponding author for the study says, "When you improve [kids'] ability to control their attention, to behave better, to make better choices . . . maybe they will be more likely to stay in school and out of trouble."

Please consider the five elements Davis cites and what we now see unfortunately as the function of schools: to improve standardized test scores. Don't those standardized test scores make a big jump if schools institute something that allows students to pay more attention, behave better, make better choices, stay in school, and stay out of trouble?

Moreover, Davis and her colleagues fully expect additional studies will demonstrate the same sort of improvement in children not overweight or normally sedentary.

That's because they believe the recorded increase in intelligence is a result not of the improved cardiovascular condition of the subjects, but because vigorous physical activity also causes brain development, a fact already found to be true in older adults. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and published last February showed that aerobic exercise actually increased the size of the part of the brain used for memory and spatial navigation in adults aged 55 to 80.

But to demonstrate further just why schools need to schedule more, not less, gym class, let's just say that the research done by Davis and her colleagues never happened or that future research proves it to be bunkum.

That still wouldn't change the fact that America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic and that increasing exercise is one way to stop it. In fact, obesity has had such a far-ranging and adverse effect on American health that strokes are now occurring in record numbers in young and middle-aged Americans.

This sudden rupture or obstruction of an artery in the brain used to be a problem only for the elderly, but experts believe the 51 percent increase recorded among men aged 15 to 34 when statistics from 1994 and 1995 were compared to those from 2006 and 2007 comes from carrying too many pounds.

So despite hard economic times and a federal decree that comically mandates academic success, the amount of exercise provided in school needs to be increased not cut back.

For what good is it to graduate "smart" students if by focusing on increasing their intelligence in adolescence they become disabled or die by middle age?

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