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A plea for more physical education

Published September 07. 2013 09:00AM

Does anyone else remember Susan Powter, the former fat mom who wrote three best-selling diet books and became so popular in the 1990s that she hosted her own talk show? Besides her frenetic energy and white buzz cut, what I remember was the start of the infomercial for her first book.

After on off-screen voice lists all that can go wrong on fad diets, Powter appears on screen and shouts out what became her famous catchphrase: "Stop the insanity."

Stop the insanity. The expression is an appropriate response for how physical education is being handled in public schools right now.

Schools locally and nationally are offering less of it when taxpayers, the people who should be determining policy, are requesting more.

Earlier this year, a survey taken by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Affairs Research found that 80 percent of the adults who responded wanted more physical activity in school. Later, a survey performed by Fields Research for the health care provider Kaiser Permanente found that 90 percent of Americans felt that way.

Moreover, only 19 percent in the Fields Research poll felt obesity was a personal issue, with 60 percent believing that schools should take "a leading roll" in the battle against obesity.

Yet one of the most affected elements during the current educational era I call the Dark Ages only partially the product of draconian budget cuts is PE.

Now it's one thing for school boards, state, and federal governments to dismiss the wishes of its constituents; it's another when these three groups reject the recommendations of the medical community.

In May, for instance, the Institute of Medicine issued a report calling for schoolchildren to exercise 60 minutes a day, with schools providing 30 of those minutes in elementary schools and 45 of those minutes in the higher levels. The report was issued in part in response to the collateral damage done to PE by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Since that time, 44 percent of school administrators questioned claimed that they had cut "considerable time" from PE and recess as a way to do more reading and math.

The Institute of Medicine report calls those changes shortsighted since a slew of studies have linked physical activity, fitness, and academic performance particularly in the areas of reading and math.

For instance, Michigan State University researchers analyzed data gathered on 312 middle school students. They considered standardized academic scores, similar to Pennsylvania's PSSA test; report card grades in core classes; performance in physical fitness tests, like number of push-ups completed and time in the shuttle run; and general fitness indicators, such as body fat percentage and flexibility.

The data revealed that the middle schoolers in the best physical shape not only did better on standardized tests, but also had better report card scores, and these results held true across the board for boys and girls, for students who had gone through puberty, and for those who had not.

A study published earlier this year in The Journal of Pediatrics determined that poor aerobic fitness has an even more deleterious effect on the academics of elementary and middle school students as socioeconomic status. Such a finding is extremely significant since there has always been a wide divide in America between the standardized test scores of kids who come from affluence and those living in poverty.

Researchers from Creighton University discovered this by comparing standardized test scores in reading, math, and aerobic fitness, and body mass index (BMI) of elementary and middle school students in Lincoln, Nebraska. The comparisons revealed that BMI did not correlate to academic success though it did generally indicate overall general health. But the test used to gauge aerobic fitness, times posted in the shuttle-run, was clearly linked to academic success and failure.

Aerobically fit students were 2.4 times more likely to pass a standardized math test and 2.2 times more likely to pass a standardized reading test than those unfit.

The real eye opener, however, occurred when the students receiving free and reduced lunches a group historically associated with low test scores and poverty were compared to the aerobically unfit group. The odds of passing both the reading and the math test were actually higher for the free-and-reduced-lunches group than the group deemed to be out of shape by the shuttle-run results.

It's because of studies like these that Harold W. Kohl III, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health and one of the two editors of the Institute of Medicine report, stated that "physical activity should be a priority for all schools."

Kohl and his cohort argue in the report that this would be easier to accomplish if the Department of Education designated PE as a core subject, making it as important in the educational system as reading and math, a suggestion that may be the result of a previously published study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

This study revealed that not all the school districts in California were complying with the state's mandatory PE requirement, and that the ones that weren't had more out-of-shape students, according to results from all districts on fifth graders in a one-mile-run-or-walk fitness test.

In fact, the children in the districts following the PE mandate were 29 percent more likely to be deemed in-shape.

So in short, let's listen to good 'ol Susan and stop the insanity. Let's stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we are not leaving any child behind, when we create a system that doesn't expand our children's minds nearly as much as their backsides.

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