Getting Physical: A New Fitness Philosophy Puts Gym Teachers on the Front Lines in the Battle against Childhood Obesity

By Tyre, Peg | Newsweek, February 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Getting Physical: A New Fitness Philosophy Puts Gym Teachers on the Front Lines in the Battle against Childhood Obesity


Tyre, Peg, Newsweek


Byline: Peg Tyre

Twice a week, Kale Granda, an eighth grader at Titusville Middle School in rural Pennsylvania, changes into his gym clothes, straps on a heart-rate monitor and mounts a GameRider, a stationary bike attached to a PlayStation. For the next 20 minutes, Kale, who packs 190 pounds on his 64-inch frame, transforms his physical-education class into a virtual motocross. By the time his teacher, Tim McCord, signals the end of class, Kale's shirt is soaked. He jumps off his bike, leaving his virtual motorcycle to crash into a virtual retaining wall, and proudly shows McCord the results from his monitor. For more than 13 minutes, Kale's heart rate was in his target zone--about 170 beats per minute. McCord is thrilled and Kale offers a triumphant grin.

Ten years ago kids like Kale Granda warmed the bench instead of working up a sweat. Physical-education classes were showcases for budding athletes, a yawn for the able-bodied and a hardship to be endured by the rest. But now baby fat has morphed into a national health crisis. Nearly 15 percent of kids between 12 and 19 are overweight--up from 5 percent in the late 1970s. They're also more sedentary than ever. Less than 25 percent of school-age children get even 20 minutes of vigorous daily physical activity, well below the minimum doctors prescribe. Public-health officials predict that many members of the Joystick Generation will begin to experience costly, debilitating illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes even in their 20s and 30s. These warnings have prompted some physical-education teachers to rethink their old Darwinian view of gym class. Instead of helping the natural athletes refine the perfect jump shot, proponents of the New PE say their goal is to get "mouse potatoes" moving again.

One of the gurus of the New PE is Phil Lawler, who teaches at Madison Junior High School near Chicago. A few years ago Lawler decided to check his most unfit students with a heart monitor after they'd jogged a mile. Although the out-of-shape kids weren't as fast as the jocks, Lawler was surprised to find that many were clocking nearly 200 beats per minute. "What I learned is that the unfit kids were putting out as much effort as my best athletes," says Lawler. But despite that effort, the poorly conditioned kids were being measured against stronger kids and found wanting. Lawler realized that instead of teaching kids how to win a race, he should teach them how to stay in the fitness zone--the most efficient heart rate for maintaining good health--for as long as possible.

These days, students at Madison strap on heart monitors and work out on treadmills, stationary bikes or a rock-climbing wall. Some try in-line skating or even power walking. When they play traditional sports, the rules are modified so the action never stops. …

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