July 1, 2008

Obesity Battle Continues


Advocates push to keep kids moving

Classes are out for children across the country, but the fight to boost fitness and curb fat among America's youth doesn't end with the school year, researchers and health advocates say. That's why they're encouraging parents to turn off the television and video games and find ways to get kids moving.

Groups ranging from the American Heart Association to the National Association for Sport & Physical Education succeeded in efforts in Florida and Oklahoma this year to increase the time children spend in physical education classes. But the fourth consecutive defeat this spring of a similar measure in the Maryland legislature highlights the difficulties such campaigns face, even when concern about childhood obesity is high.

About 9 million (or 16 percent) of children between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight under the standard used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- three times the percentage in 1980. (CDC does not use the term "obese" in describing weight problems in children.)

Many of the same factors that have hampered efforts to limit junk food sales on school campuses -- including tight budgets and political turf battles -- have also blocked efforts to expand physical education. Daily PE classes, once routine, are now offered by fewer than 10 percent of public schools, even though regular exercise is known to fight fat. Most elementary students get far fewer than the 150 minutes of PE per week recommended for that age; in many Maryland schools, elementary students get only about 30 minutes.

But experts say schools don't deserve all the blame for children's growing waistlines. A study of 5,380 kindergartners and first-graders published last year in the American Journal of Public Health found that students gained more weight during the summer than they did the rest of the year. Once classes resumed, the children's body mass indexes fell, researchers found.

Health experts say this study underscores the need for parents to share responsibility for keeping kids fit. During the summer, when kids may have less structure to their day, that primarily means getting them outdoors.

"Studies have shown that the more time kids spend outside, the more active they are," said Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the NASPE, which publishes a summer fitness calendar for students, available at iweb.aahperd.org/naspe/template.cfm?template=teacher_ toolbox_jun08.html.

"It's not a complex equation; you don't have to have a lot of equipment and space," Burgeson said. "For families, it's just thinking about how they spend their discretionary time. Do you rent a movie or take a walk?"

An added incentive: Health experts tout a growing body of research that links physical activity with improved academic performance. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said shrinking school budgets and pressure to boost reading and math scores have reduced the class time available for PE programs.

Meanwhile, children's activity outside school has also dropped: According to NASPE's 2006 "Shape of the Nation" report, more than a third of young people in grades 9 through 12 do not participate in "vigorous physical activity" outside school.

Four years ago, health advocates were dismayed to discover that in many Maryland public schools, elementary students were getting only about 30 minutes of physical education a week. So when a coalition of groups, including the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, sought to boost that, they thought convincing others would be an easy sell.

They are still fighting.

When the proposal was first defeated, "we were absolutely in shock," said Michaeline Fedder, Maryland director of advocacy for the American Heart Association. "But you get used to it and you understand where it's coming from."

Early this year, advocates offered a compromise: Instead of pushing for 150 minutes a week of PE at the elementary level, they proposed 90 minutes of PE classes and 60 minutes of other "vigorous" activity at recess and other times, to give schools systems more flexibility, said Shawn McIntosh, chairman of the Healthy Schools Coalition.

But the bill was defeated. Among the most vocal opponents were the Montgomery County school system and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which represents the state's 24 local school systems.

John R. Woolums, MABE's director of governmental relations, said that while his association is "supportive of local school efforts to promote ... robust physical education programs," its members worry about the cost -- estimated by the legislature at more than $26 million -- and about the state's usurping local school boards' authority. Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George's County, a former NFL quarterback who sponsored the measure, responded: "People are concerned about (the costs), but what price can you put on health?"

A task force appointed to study the issue is expected to complete its report in November.

Some states, however, have made changes. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, R, recently signed a bill requiring public schools to offer elementary students 30 continuous minutes a day of PE classes. (Before the "continuous" stipulation, some schools counted the time students walked to class toward their PE requirement.) Beginning in 2009-10, Florida middle schools will also be required to offer a semester of PE, unless parents opt their children out of the program.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., recently signed a bill encouraging public schools to provide 150 minutes per week of physical education, extracurricular activities or other physical activities; school boards will decide what types of activities are appropriate. Although the legislation doesn't mandate physical education, as advocates had hoped, they are optimistic it will make a difference.

A handful of Maryland's school systems have carved out more time for physical education without hurting students academically, Walker said. In Frederick County, elementary students have at least 80 minutes of physical education a week. The school system partnered with the county recreation department to build gyms, said Kathleen Wack, a curriculum specialist for elementary physical education and health. The schools use the gyms during the day; county recreation programs use them in the evening.

Houston, of the administrators association, said the key to winning the battle will be getting parents mobilized.

"It's much better to have awareness programs for schools and states that discuss the lack of physical education," he said. "If you do that, parents are going to demand more of it and schools will respond."

In the meantime, experts advise parents to take advantage of the warm days to encourage their children to "disconnect from their computers and go outside and play," Burgeson said.

Originally published by LORI ARATANI Washington Post.

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