August 15, 2006

Schools Urged to Boost Kids’ Physical Activity

NEW YORK -- U.S. schools should take a lead role in fighting the nation's obesity problem by giving students more chances for exercise, the American Heart Association (AHA) said Monday.

In a scientific statement published in its journal Circulation, the Association calls on schools to move beyond their standard gym classes and consider more innovative ways to get kids moving.

While most states require that students get some amount of physical education, research shows that few schools offer the recommended amount of PE time each week -- an average of a half-hour per day in elementary school and 45 minutes per day in middle school and high school.

Meanwhile, U.S. children's weights are ballooning in a manner similar to their parents'. Nearly one-third of children ages 6 and up are overweight or on the verge of becoming so, the AHA points out.

In its report, the group calls on schools to ensure that students in all grades get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, including PE class. Though schools are now under pressure to improve students' scores on standardized tests, physical education -- and general health education -- need to remain a priority, say the report's authors.

"Children and youth spend a substantial number of their waking hours in school, so it's important that schools provide adequate physical activity," lead author Dr. Russell R. Pate of the University of South Carolina in Columbia said in a statement.

To achieve this, he and his colleagues advise schools to look beyond the traditional PE class. Team sports offer students one way to be active, but there need to be opportunities for kids who don't want to be on competitive teams -- such as intramural sports, exercise-based clubs or after-school classes in some form of physical activity.

School officials, according to the AHA, could look into ways to have community groups offer exercise programs to students. They should also encourage students to walk or bike to school -- and, in cases where kids don't have safe travel routes, lobby local government to provide them.

Schools shouldn't have to make an "either/or" choice between academics and physical education, according to Pate. "A balanced academic program should include PE and should also incorporate strategies to increase physical activity throughout the school day," he said. "Physical activity shouldn't stop at PE class."

SOURCE: Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, online August 15, 2006.