Let's Get Physical

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Pushed by Concerned Parents, PE Makes a Comeback

After decades of indifference — and, some say, school cutbacks — legislators, school administrators and parents are hard at work to improve the quantity and quality of physical education (PE) programs in American public schools. Fueling the little noticed movement is an obesity epidemic that is threatening child health across the country.

Long overshadowed by controversies about academic performance and the nationwide school-rating system mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, PE is slowly making a comeback thanks to new state legislation and federal programs, as well as a number of corporate and nonprofit public service campaigns. And behind this effort stands a substantial cadre of angry and alarmed parents.

On the West Coast, parents in the state of Washington pressed educators and legislators last year to restore recess and other playtime activities gutted by the “No Child” academic panic. In Arizona, meanwhile, a state legislator is trying to make recess required, and in March, a chamber of Oklahoma’s state assembly passed a bill to double PE time in elementary schools, also requiring nutrition studies and more PE for older students.

Here on the East Coast, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty released a budget in March that provides for an “18 percent increase in physical education teachers” in the District’s public schools next year. “We’re increasing the number of PE teachers to ensure all schools offer physical education,” said Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for District of Columbia Public Schools.

The federal government is also trying to get into the act. The U.S. Department of Education is offering grants to school districts and community groups under its Carol M. White Physical Education Program to improve the state of PE in grades K-12 and help students across the country meet state standards for physical education.

Why all the PE fuss? It partly stems from this country’s flood of fat: Between 1975 and 2005, the number of overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than tripled, according to a U.S. Department of Education report. And increasing physical activity through PE has become a public health strategy to combat childhood obesity, according to a study on the problem published this March in the American Journal of Public Health.

The link between obesity and poor health in children and adults is backed by a growing body of research. Chronic diseases associated with weight gain, such as diabetes and heart problems, not only cause physical suffering and mental anguish for children and their families, they’re costly to individuals and to health companies alike. They’re also hard on state and federal budgets.

The tried-and-true adage of eat less and exercise more is still the solution for most people, and this includes overweight kids who spend the majority of their waking hours in school.

However, “there’s a big discrepancy between what’s really happening with physical education and recess in schools, and what many parents think is happening,” according to Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) based in Reston, Va.

“Ninety percent of adults want kids to have daily PE,” Burgeson said, citing a NASPE study. However, because “the majority of schools do provide some PE, sports and recess time, parents assume children are getting more than they are.” But the actual amount of fitness time children are getting is hardly enough to make any real impact, Burgeson said, pointing out that “schools often offer only one or two days of PE a week, or a high school will offer one semester over four years.”

Another factor is the quality of the school offerings. “We tell parents to check and see what’s actually happening in their school. If the school is just offering one or two team sports — soccer, basketball — that’s not good enough.”

The good news, Burgeson said, is that nowadays many PE programs are providing a broad choice of activities for students, beyond just basketball or dance. “Schools are offering things like yoga, martial arts, in-line skating, orienteering [a combination of map-reading and cross-country skiing], snowshoeing, bicycling or even indoor rock climbing,” Burgeson said. “So the idea here is that there are so many ways to be physically active. Individuals enjoy different things. If we can gets kids excited about it, they will choose to be active.”

And a large number of corporate and other private initiatives are trying to do just that. Among the most successful is WhatMovesU, a countrywide fitness campaign for middle schools started two years ago by the National Football League (NFL) and American Heart Association. The program works with teachers to develop curriculum-friendly activities and sends football players into schools to encourage fitness.

WhatMovesU recently got some added star power thanks to Eli Manning, the New York Giants quarterback who threw game-winning touchdown passes in this year’s Super Bowl. Manning has appeared in public-service television ads for WhatMovesU and has visited several schools in the Northeast to promote the popular initiative.

“We’ve made visits to schools in every county in New York and New Jersey,” said Ethan Medley, assistant director of community relations for the Giants. “The program provides lesson plans designed by teachers. For example, it incorporates heart-rate monitors into math lessons. Kids will measure their heart rates before and after they do jumping jacks,” Medley explained, noting that the children like not only the physical activity, but the high-tech gadgets as well.

The NFL has distributed 25,000 WhatMovesU “activation kits” to schools throughout the country, and other schools that want to get in on the action can do so through the program’s Web site, www.whatmovesu.com.

“It’s the NFL’s primary community outreach activity,” said NFL Director of Community Affairs David Krichavsky, who described the country’s fitness and obesity problems as “public health crises.” “We’ve primarily worked with public schools but private schools, independent schools, are welcome to take part as well,” Krichavsky told The Washington Diplomat.

Schools that participate are not guaranteed a visit by an NFL star, but each NFL team schedules “some visits” to middle schools and offers its own array of fitness incentives such as T-shirts, game tickets or access to team training sessions, Krichavsky said.

Another new initiative is EnergyNow! (www.energynow.com), a joint project of NASPE and Polar, a firm that provides fitness products. EnergyNow! awards competitive grants of ,500 to individual middle schools for them to purchase PE equipment. It also provides awardees with Polar heart-rate monitors and other assessment tools, as well as training packages.

“We are looking for schools ready to provide quality physical education, but it’s not a program for the rich to get richer. You don’t have to have the most innovative program in your area or already have a lot of resources. You have to be eager and open,” NASPE’s Burgeson said.

Parents likewise have to be open to the fact that fitness comes in all forms. If football, field hockey or other school staples don’t suit your child, there are plenty of other options, especially in a city as diverse as Washington, D.C. One such option is martial arts, which aims to teach both fitness and life skills.

For instance, the Hung Tao Choy Mei Kung Fu Academy in downtown D.C. teaches children and teens the traditional techniques of the Jow Ga school of kung fu, as well as guidance on healthy living and leadership development.

“We teach the traditional kung fu skills … that is, self defense, balance, flexibility and strength training,” said instructor Abdur-Rahim Muhammad, founder of the academy. Other offerings include music instruction on traditional instruments such as drums, gongs and cymbals, as well as “lion dancing” and Saturday cartooning classes.

However, just as important, “we teach life skills — teamwork, the value of making friends, being decisive, trust,” said Muhammad, an international businessman who has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and mainland China.

“We believe that the martial arts are an excellent means for cultivating friendly relationships and cooperation and should not be used to exercise dominance or control over others,” Muhammad explained. “Traditional kung fu schools like ours have always been an integral part of the community … developing the young into strong future leaders exhibiting character, integrity, and an aim and purpose in life.”

His academy, located on U Street, offers daytime classes for children on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as the Saturday cartooning classes (when space is available), for a fee of 0 for the first month and a month after that. The academy is a community service organization that also receives funding for an extensive scholarship program serving low-income summer campers, with a focus on children living in the District’s Ward One and Logan Circle neighborhoods.

The 2008 scholarship summer camp, titled “Martial Arts - Life Skills - Healthy Lifestyles,” offers six weeks of martial arts and life skills training to children between the ages of 5 and 13.

In addition to a field trip to a kung fu tournament, the students will also participate in the upcoming Fiesta Asia street fair on May 17, part of the annual Asian American Heritage Festival and one of the events in the citywide Passport DC embassy showcase. Fiesta Asia is also partnering with the embassies of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Indonesia, who will be flying in musicians and other artists to join the martial arts students for a colorful panoply of demonstrations and performances mixing international and local flavor. It certainly gives an entirely new meaning to the concept of “after-school sports.”

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999