PE Makes a Comeback: Lawmakers Are Looking at Physical Education to Improve Kids' Health and Academic Achievement

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Kids are getting fatter. Obesity rates over the last 30 years have more than quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11 and more than tripled for youths ages 12 to 19. Our children and youths are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even asthma.

One way to battle bulging waistlines is to get kids moving. Experts recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity five days a week for children. Almost 30 percent don't exercise even three days a week.

Lawmakers hope a return to physical education programs will help kids slim down and stay fit. Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas all passed laws this session with requirements for how much time students must spend in physical education classes or organized physical activity during the school day. About 40 laws have passed the past couple of years, but many states still lack PE time standards at all grade levels and classes that keep kids moving and having fun in a variety of activities.

"Everything we want our young people to achieve is contingent upon their basic health," says Texas Senator Jane Nelson, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. "We have to stop treating PE as optional, because it is as fundamental to the success of our students as reading, writing and arithmetic."

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There's mounting evidence that physical activity not only reduces the risk of chronic diseases, it also helps academic performance. And exercise contributes to the development and maintenance of healthy bones, muscles and joints, and reduces the risk for depression. Experts recommend that all children, from prekindergarten through grade 12, receive daily physical education taught by certified specialists, and that all schools have appropriate class sizes, facilities and equipment.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that elementary school students participate in physical education for 150 minutes per week at school, and middle and high school students for 225 minutes per week. The association also recommends that qualified physical education teachers provide a developmentally appropriate program, and that a teacher/student ratio similar to other classroom settings is maintained (no greater than one teacher for each 25 students in elementary school and 1/30 for middle and high school). The goal should be to make lifelong exercisers of all kids regardless of athletic ability.

The Texas law, sponsored by Senator Nelson, requires 30 minutes of daily exercise for students in grades K-five this school year, and beginning next year, middle school students also will be covered (30 minutes a day, 135 minutes a week, or 225 minutes over two weeks). Annual, confidential fitness assessments also start this year for students in grades three through 12.

Oregon's law phases in physical education time requirements over the next decade, to provide a minimum of 150 minutes per week of physical education in elementary schools and 210 minutes per week in middle schools. School districts will be able to apply for $860,000 in grants to help train teachers. The state Department of Education will get $140,000 to gather information from districts about current physical education programs.

"The return of physical activity to our classrooms will lead to healthy bodies and healthy minds for our children," says Senate President Peter Courtney, the bill sponsor.

In Florida, Representative Will Weatherford was the enthusiastic chief sponsor of a 2007 law that now requires 150 minutes of physical education each week for students in grades K-five and 225 minutes of weekly physical education for grades six-eight. Asked why he sponsored the legislation, Weatherford says, "I think that what's happened over the last 20 years or so is that the obesity epidemic has really hit our youth. …