Help kids win battle of the bulge

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

physically active.

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.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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