Across the country, children’s physical fitness has been placed on
the front burner. First lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity
her top priority. In Sacramento California, a major conference on
physical education research was recently held at the state Capitol. The
message is that fit kids not only get healthier, they get smarter, too.
In addition to various nutrition-oriented proposals, Mrs. Obama’s
new “Let’s Move” anti-childhood-obesity initiative calls for greater
emphasis on physical activity for children. The “Let’s Move” Web site
says, “Children need 60 minutes of active and vigorous play every day
to grow up to a healthy weight.” In contrast, “only a third of high
school students get the recommended physical activity.” Getting kids
off the couch has multiple benefits.
The California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness, which
sponsored the Sacramento conference, has just issued a report examining
the research literature on physical education. Not surprisingly, the
research shows that increasing physical activity prevents people of all
ages from developing health problems ranging from obesity to diabetes
to even cancer. Increased physical activity, however, also impacts
children’s academic achievement.
“[P]hysical activity has been shown to increase concentration and
mental cognition and facilitate executive function, thereby improving
student performance in academic subjects,” say the report authors. They
note that in a recent study of elementary school students, increased
physical activity or physical education “resulted in grade-point
average gains and suggest an increase in performance per unit of
academic teaching time.” The report also found that increased physical
activity leads to better student behavior, improved attentiveness, and
higher attendance rates.
Despite these benefits, there are significant obstacles to implementing effective physical education in schools.
In the current fiscal environment, funding for physical education is
not plentiful. Further, many schools, especially at the elementary
level, don’t insist that students complete the required number of
minutes for physical education. Surprisingly, when students do
participate in physical-education classes, many aren’t actually very
In California, the report cites UCLA research showing that students
in physical-education classes spend, on average, only four minutes out
of every half hour in vigorous physical activity. Children at many
schools, says the report, aren’t getting the recommended levels of
physical activity, especially moderate-to-vigorous physical activity,
which causes great concern “given that vigorous physical activity has
been associated with higher grades.”
A major stumbling block to greater vigorous activity in
physical-education settings, according to the report, is that,
“Facilities and equipment may not be adequate to encourage physical
activity.” Given precarious state and local budgets, addressing this
inadequacy won’t be easy. However, there are nonpublic-sector
organizations that are working to close this facilities and equipment
For example, the Sound Body Sound Mind Foundation has placed fitness
equipment in 60 charter and regular public schools in the Los Angeles
area. Started in 1998 by businessman and former gubernatorial candidate
Bill Simon and his wife, Cindy, SBSM provides up to $50,000 in
state-of-the-art fitness equipment, such as cardio and strength
machines, to participating high schools and middle schools. This
equipment is used by students during the regular school day in P.E.
classes, and will also be used in pilot after-school programs.
It’s not enough, however, simply to get fitness equipment into schools the equipment must be used effectively.
That’s why SBSM is partnering with the Competitive Athlete Training
Zone, a national fitness and training organization, pioneering
multi-lesson curricula that will turn students into “skilled movers.”
The after-school curriculum, for instance, will include games and
exercises that will improve students’ aerobic capacity, full body
motion, balance, flexibility and core strength. The goal will be for
students to maintain an elevated heart rate for 40 minutes. To assure
accountability, heart-rate monitors will measure individual student
improvement, and a fitness test will be administered before and at the
end of the program.
Jonathan Nolasco, a student at College Ready Academy No. 4, a Los
Angeles charter school, says that the SBSM fitness center at his campus
“helped me improve both physically and mentally.”
The evidence demonstrates that physical education and academics are
complements, not antagonists. For our nation’s students, winning the
battle of the bulge will also help win the battle of the brain.