Many schools cutting back on physical education

There was a time when after-school activities meant riding bikes, shooting hoops in the backyard or even a neighborhood game of hide-and-seek that went on until dusk.

In today’s complex world, “after-school activities” is almost a loaded term, more about organizing the fun as opposed to the spontaneous exercise of past generations. It needs, for example, to fit into the busy family schedule; it needs to be in a place that’s safe and supervised by adults, or even make up for all those hours the kids have spent in front of the TV playing video games.

Ironically, we are more aware than ever of the importance of exercise for children in promoting everything from long-term health to improving academic performance, but at the same time the world has made it tougher to get Johnny or Susie outside to play.

“Think about all the groups working to keep kids inactive. There’s advertising for movies, there’s video games, TV is still the most common sedentary activity, parents are afraid to let their kids play out in the yard, they feel the kids are better off sitting and playing videos indoors than face the .001 percent chance that they would be hurt outdoors — so this is a big problem,” said James Sallis, professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the nonprofit Active Living Research

Sallis was in town in June for a conference focused on getting children more active in school. The event, “It Takes a Village to Move a Child in School,” took place at the Red Rock Resort and was organized by the southwest district of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. It included representatives from states such as Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, California and Utah.

In a lobby outside the ballroom where Sallis was about to give the convention’s keynote address, he talked about the vital role schools need to play in giving children the chance to be physically active during a time when the country is going in the other direction.

Children are more sedentary than ever and childhood obesity has become a major problem, yet schools are cutting back on physical education at all grade levels, he said. Although it is not the responsibility of the education system to solve the problem of inactivity, the reality is that for many children, “if they don’t get their physical activity in school, they don’t get any,” he said.

“The theme of this conference is working together as a village, and we want to encourage and empower people in the physical education and physical activity field to partner with public health … and to not be shy about developing relationships with the superintendent, the school board, the legislators, who can really create the systemic changes that we need. It’s about developing partnerships and working together and improving the situation for all kids,” he said.

The conference came on the heels of a new report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies called “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School.”

According to the report, 44 percent of the nation’s school administrators have cut significant amounts of time from physical education, arts and recess so that more time could be devoted to reading and mathematics since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The percentage of schools offering physical education daily or at least three days a week has declined dramatically from 2001 to 2006, the report added.

It is also estimated that only about half of America’s youth meet the current evidence-based guideline of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity daily.

Because children are in school for several hours a day, because schools are already invested in health issues such as childhood immunizations and better nutrition, it makes sense that schools would be part of the solution to getting children more active, according to Harold Kohl, chairman of the committee that developed the Institute of Medicine report.

But it isn’t just about lowering the number of children with obesity or getting them off the couch. The payoffs are all-encompassing.

“What’s in it for the educators is better academic performance. That’s kind of the Holy Grail on this deal, and the evidence is getting pretty strong ... and there are so many health benefits: mental health benefits, physical health benefits, skeletal health benefits, metabolic benefits,” said Kohl, who is also a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas.

According to the report, although school performance is affected by a host of issues, including socio-economic factors and parental involvement, a growing body of research suggests a connection between physical activity and factors such as greater attention in the classroom, faster cognitive-processing speed, increased on-task behaviors and better performance on standardized academic tests.

But all the research can’t make a difference if there isn’t a willingness to change. The report also addressed the fact that the time allocated for physical education and access to it can significantly vary from state to state. Boiling it down even further, state requirements can be so weak that it can also change from district to district.

Also, “substantial disparities in opportunities for physical activity exist across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines,” the report states. Studies show, for example, fewer opportunities and lower participation in physical education at schools with a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students.

One key recommendation of the report was that the U.S. Education Department make physical education a required part of all schools’ core curriculum, which “would go a long way in emphasizing its importance,” Kohl said.

Monica Lounsbery, professor and director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas physical activity policy research program, has done regional and national studies on physical activity policies in regard to schools, the workplace and communities.

She points to existing workplace laws and compares them to the lack of legislation requiring children to get physical-activity breaks at school. What people seem to forget is that children are at school six or seven hours a day, and spend most of that time sitting at their desks.

“Our labor laws really have some pretty strict guidelines about what employers must provide for employees and break time is one of those things … and I think about that as a parallel to little people and you know, there’s no protections,” said Lounsbery, who was also organizer of the June American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance conference.

It’s unrealistic to think that, given the current budget constraints at schools across the country and the pressure to succeed on standardized tests, that states will look at the research and immediately expand physical education programs, she said.

But school administrators need to be given the information that physical activity can affect academic success, and that there are physical education curriculums and programs that can make a difference right away. It doesn’t always require more funding or class time, she said, but optimizing what is already there.

“So you have to look for other opportunities outside of physical education and in elementary school that would be recess, before- and after-school programs, classroom activity breaks. … We have engineered physical activity, our energy expenditure, out of our normal daily lives and we need schools to help us put that back.”

Experts such as Lounsbery also point to the need for schools to collaborate with outside sources — parents, local governments, health advocacy groups, politicians — to get the support they need.

Some of that collaboration has recently been seen within the Clark County School District. During the 2012-13 academic year, the district used money from a Center for Disease Control Community Transformation Grant to train 200 kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers how to provide physical-activity breaks in the classroom, including staff from Ries and McWilliams elementary schools.

These include “brain break” exercises before the transition to another subject, or math and vocabulary lessons that incorporate movement, said Shannon LaNeve, school district coordinator for K-12 physical education, health and driver education.

The district has also hired a coordinator for its grant-funded Safe Routes to School program, which focuses on getting children active by making it easier for them to walk or bike to school. Through the collaboration of everyone from parents to landscape architects, the program focuses on making safe bike paths and walkways for children to get to school, and includes “walking” school buses in which groups of children walk to school together along with parent volunteers, LaNeve said.

This recent momentum on the local level, through grants and community assistance, is also going hand-in-hand with the state Education Department ’s move to revise Nevada’s physical education standards.

At this time, Nevada’s physical education requirements are some of the weakest in the nation, according to Lounsbery, including a mandate of only two credits of physical education for high school and no requirement at all at the elementary level.

This leaves the implementation of physical education up to the discretion of the individual districts. Clark County, for example, requires 100 minutes, or about two class periods, of physical education per week in elementary school.

But whatever the state decides to do, LaNeve believes that the school district will be moving more in the direction of creating physical education that teaches lifetime fitness skills instead of a primarily sports-themed approach. Some physical education teachers, for example, are already using yoga in their instruction and cross-fit education.

Another goal is to ensure that students are spending at least 50 percent of P.E. class time engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, as opposed to “sitting in lines, waiting for your turn,” LaNeve said.

Last, but far from least, it’s about making it fun — for everyone.

“A lot of times this is just work, they’re not having fun. We need to bring the fun back for our kids,” LaNeve said. “And part of the issue is that there are students who are overweight and they’re self-conscious, and their self-image and self-esteem are really low.

“We need to be cognizant of that and empathetic to that, and make them know that they don’t have to be the perfect athlete, we just want them to be moving and be healthy,” she said.