Physical Activity in Schools, Part 4

Kids running and jumping

Childhood Obesity News has been looking at different aspects of the schools-and-exercise controversy. To really think about the subject, it’s necessary to go all the way back to the basic question of whether exercise is useful in combating childhood obesity. Probably it is, indirectly, if not directly. It’s not THE answer, but it can’t hurt and might help.

Should schools be responsible for providing exercise opportunities? If so, what ages of children should be included in any mandatory programs? Who pays for the equipment and personnel that schools need to implement physical education programs? Even if the law can compel public schools to provide programs, what about other schools? There are a million questions.

Last time, we mentioned a study that found school Physical Education classes to be unhelpful in regard to childhood obesity. But the researchers were thinking, maybe it’s only that the typical PE class is not designed to burn enough calories. Here is an interesting related quotation from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health:

Nationwide, less than one-third of all children ages 6–17 engage in vigorous activity, defined as at least 20 minutes of physical activity that makes the child sweat and breathe hard.

That is the latest available iteration of these statistics, since information for the next edition was still being collected as recently as last month, and the results are not expected until January of next year.

F as in Fat is the media-friendly title of the 2011 Obesity Report generated by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Section 1, Part D, is concerned with “Childhood and Youth Obesity and Overweight Rates.” It references the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), a national survey of U.S. high school students who were asked, among other things, whether or not they logged at least an hour of physical activity per day, every day of the week.

Perhaps because of farm chores, high school students from Kansas rated the highest, with 27% of them meeting that goal. (Remember, this only adds up to seven hours per week of activity.) The very worst were Massachusetts kids — only 17% of them claimed to participate in even that paltry amount of exercise.

The report goes on to say that every state has some kind of physical education requirements, no matter how rudimentary. But often the rules are minimal and/or unenforced. Also, inadequate programs can’t help anyone. As always, it’s a money problem. Someone has to pay for the space, the equipment, the personnel, the insurance, and all the other expenses. Eleven states actually require schools to provide physical activity or recess, during every school day. Others, apparently, do not.

A lot of schools provide recreational facilities and time, even without being told to by the state. In 2008, 83% of middle school students in America were required to take some PE during the school year, even it it was only for one semester or trimester. Another thing about 2008 was, only 25% of middle school kids and 14% of high school kids walked or biked to their schools. Childhood Obesity News has discussed the sometimes enormous difficulties that prevent many of the young from being able to get their exercise in this way.

One of the amazing facts discovered in F as in Fat: 15 years ago, in the state with the highest obesity rate (Mississippi), that rate (close to 20%) was the same as the state with the lowest obesity rate today (Colorado). To rephrase that: The percentage of overweight and obese people in the fattest state then is the same as the skinniest state now. What was then the worst-case scenario has now become the best-case scenario. This is alarming!

Here is another interesting tidbit of information from the same publication that makes a person think hard about how “cause and effect” fits into all this:

Those who did not graduate high school have the highest rates of obesity. Those who graduated high school but did not go on to college or a technical school have the second highest obesity rate… Those who graduate from college/technical school had the lowest obesity rate.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “National Survey of Children’s Health,” CDC.gov, 05/16/12
Source: “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future” (PDF), HealthyAmericans.org, July 2011
Image by sholden (Steve Holden), used under its Creative Commons license.

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