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Gym Classes Explore New Frontiers

August 1, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. _ This is not your grandpa’s PE class. Actually, it isn’t your PE class, either.

Gone are the days when physical education meant focusing only on sports, like kickball or dodgeball. Now, physical education means teaching kids about fitness, how to create wellness plans and how to exercise properly, all so they can learn how to be healthy and active for a lifetime.

The shift began 10 years ago, when data started showing obesity levels rising in children. Many states had backed away from requiring PE, which was contributing to the rising numbers. A new emphasis on fitness took root.

“People just looked at physical education as just throwing a ball,” said Bill Poniatowski, physical education specialist for Volusia County, Fla. “With the advent of wellness programs and data on the obesity crisis, people in the field decided to do something different to get kids off their butts and get them moving.”

That doesn’t mean all kids have gotten off their behinds. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that while 90 percent of 9-year-olds get two hours of exercise most days, less than one-third of American teens spend an hour each day engaging in any “moderate-to-vigorous” exercise.

That would explain a 2006 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that the obesity rates among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. The rate among adolescents aged 12 to 19 more than tripled, increasing from 5 percent to 17.6 percent.

The state of Florida has decided to do something to try and help its kids avoid becoming a part of these trends. Last year, the legislature mandated that elementary school students must have 150 minutes of physical education every week.

When teachers started counting walks to the restroom or lunchroom as part of PE, the state changed the mandate for this upcoming school year. Now, every time children have physical education, it must be for at least 30 consecutive minutes.

Also, middle schools must give kids a semester of PE a year starting in 2009-10. In high schools, each student must pass half a semester of personal fitness and half a semester of physical education to graduate.

“We have a lot of couch potatoes, so the more you can get them involved in PE, then they will be a better student, gain more self-confidence and have better self-esteem,” said John Zeoli, a PE teacher at DeLand High who also coaches boys basketball. “Those things are important, and I’m glad our governor and legislators are implementing that.”

The changes have caused grumbling among teachers because much of the burden falls on them to provide PE in an already busy day consumed by preparing kids for the FCAT, the state’s academic-performance exam. But the school districts are there to help them, and are doing everything they can to give PE teachers and classroom teachers alike techniques on the best way to educate their students on health and fitness instruction.

Seminole and Osceola counties applied for and received federal grants under the Physical Education Program. Mary Lane, curriculum specialist in Seminole County, said her county will receive more than $200,000 each year for the next three years to purchase new equipment and train teachers.

The equipment these days is far more sophisticated than a red bouncing ball. With the emphasis on fitness and wellness programs, schools are purchasing pedometers, so students can track how many steps they walk and calories they burn in a day. They also are purchasing heart rate monitors to teach kids the importance of target heart rate and how to reach it.

Some are looking into the popular Dance Dance Revolution platforms, too.

“The athletes seemed to benefit from the traditional sports program because those were the ones who were good at sports,” said Carolyn Masterson, associate professor of exercise science and physical fitness at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Today, what good physical education teachers are doing are looking at different strategies to being more inclusive of activities so people have more choices about what they want to learn in terms of becoming more physically active in a lifetime.”

While it might seem like this is a new crisis, physical education has been under fire since the days it was first introduced to children in the 1860s. Back then, gymnastics was emphasized, but by the early 1900s, sports and games became the most popular PE activities.

Then, in 1953, the results of the Kraus-Weber tests were published, stating American children were lacking in muscular strength and flexibility, especially compared to European children.

That led to President Dwight Eisenhower establishing the Council on Youth Fitness in 1955. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy reformed the Council on Youth Fitness and it ultimately became the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

That led to the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, recognizing children who scored in the upper 15th percentile in a variety of activities. But that test has also fallen out of favor, because it judges kids against other kids.

Today, more schools are using the Physical Best and Fitnessgram programs, where kids measure their own levels of fitness and see how much improvement they make as the year goes on.

The state also established the Governor’s Fitness Challenge, an eight-week program that encourages elementary school students to participate in physical activity.

Hungerford Elementary in Maitland, Fla., and Audubon Park Elementary in Orlando were two of four schools randomly selected to receive $5,000 toward the purchase of equipment for their schools for having at least 50 percent of their students participate in the challenge.

This is not to say kids don’t play sports in PE anymore. Kids still get their fill of kickball and dodgeball. But instead of one big game, there might be three or four games going on so everyone is involved. What is the point of PE if you are standing around for 20 minutes waiting your turn to kick a ball?

The point is to stay physically fit for a lifetime.

Even your grandpa can’t argue with that.

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(c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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