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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

Overweight and Under Educated

By Marc Sason

"In the last 15 years, prevalence of overweight and obese youth has increased by more than 100 percent." Surgeon General David Satcher

America's youth are packing on the pounds in a seemingly out of control trend. Simultaneously, more and more middle and high schools across the United States have put physical education on the top of their list of acceptable losses when budget cuts must be made.

This frustrates Rene Hooper-Peters, a physical education instructor and the former head of the athletic department at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, Calif. "Each year, P.E. is looked upon as less and less important than academic classes," she said.

As U.S. Surgeon General and Assistant Secretary for Health David Satcher pointed out earlier this year in a column published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Currently, no state mandates daily physical education in grades K-12, and participation by adolescents in daily physical education has declined dramatically by about one-third.

"I am alarmed by the steady trend we have seen over the last two decades towards decreasing physical education requirements in public schools across the country," Satcher wrote. "In the last 15 years, prevalence of overweight and obese youth has increased by more than 100 percent."

No sweat

According to a recent survey by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, public middle and high schools in at least 37 states are substituting classroom instruction for physical education. And a majority of high school students are required to take only one year of P.E. between 9th and 12th grades, instead of the recommended national guideline of at least two years.

Some schools will even waive P.E. requirements for students wishing to take extra academic classes, Driver's Education or classroom health instruction. For example, Terra Linda High School is considering granting P.E. credit for classroom health education, a one-semester requirement for new freshman students, according to Hooper-Peters.

The number of physical education classes Hooper-Peters teaches has decreased from five per day to four over the past few years. She said that overcrowded classes and lack of equipment to go around are the result. She also said that previously mandatory cardiovascular exercises have been cut back to two days per week.

However, Terra Linda High School Principal Biff Barnes had a different perspective of what is happening at his school. "As far as I can tell, P.E. is not suffering from any cut-backs," he said. Barnes, the former Varsity football coach, cited that the school recently added a freshman football team, a girls' water polo team and two weight and strength training classes.

While Barnes pointed out that school athletics are flourishing, Hooper-Peters is not satisfied with the lack of attention paid to P.E. classes taken by non-athletic students.

And, according to some administrators and educators, it is not only this lack of focus on physical fitness and well-being that explains the alarming statistics about overweight and obese children, but also the varying opinions and viewpoints of administrators, parents and instructors.

Active learning on the decline

A recent study by the American Obesity Association (AOA) showed that 81 percent of parents of elementary, middle, or high school children are concerned with their children getting adequate daily physical education. "Parents want schools to do more to curb the obesity epidemic in this country," said AOA executive director Morgan Downey.

Margo Wootan, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, pointed out that only about half of high school students are enrolled in P.E. classes, and only a quarter are enrolled in daily P.E. classes, down from 42 percent in 1991. "P.E. is important not only because it provides kids the opportunity to be physically active, but also because it teaches kids the need to be active throughout life," she said.

Judith Young, Ph.D., executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physician Education, agreed. "The reduced need to be active in daily life is a major factor leading to less physical activity and more food intake," she said.

A growing epidemic

According to Wootan, "life in modern America makes it difficult to maintain a healthy diet and weight." She blamed "sedentary lifestyles, ads that relentlessly encourage us to eat larger portions of the wrong types of foods and less physical and nutrition education in schools."

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study concluded that almost 25 percent of U.S. students under 18 are overweight or obese. Wootan argued that, because almost all children go to school, it is an ideal place to deliver daily exercise, fitness instruction and encouragement.

The main goal for most physical education instructors is to reach overweight and obese children, in the hopes of preventing continuing obesity in their adult years. And overweight children who are inactive are at an extremely high risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a recent study conducted by the Council for Physical Education for Children of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (COPEC).

The numbers point to a growing public health crisis. Approximately 55 percent of Americans are overweight, and according to the AOA, that number is expected to increase to 75 percent within the next twenty years.

Wootan noted that diseases caused by unhealthy diets and physical inactivity contribute to the deaths of 300,000 to 580,000 Americans each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "That's five times more than are killed by guns, HIV and drugs combined," she said.

Back to basics

With today's overweight youth at risk of becoming tomorrow's obese adults, Wootan is one of many who believe that increased advocacy for school fitness programs may be just what the doctor ordered.

"Schools are an important part of the solution," said Wootan. "We need to strongly

advocate that teaching children how to protect their health is as important as teaching geography or history."

The COPEC recommends that students get at least 30 to 60 minutes of varied physical activity per day.

Brenda Greene, director of School Health Programs at the National School Boards Association, pointed out that not everyone feels that responsibility should fall solely on schools. "Clearly, this is a societal issue involving families and communities, as well as schools," she said.

Hooper-Peters agreed. "Many children follow the actions of their parents. They sign up for gym memberships or team sports, but a very small percentage actually follows through with these plans," she said. "Children should also receive some type of fitness guidance and education after the school day is over."

Yet, while educators and advocates continue to push increased support for the physical fitness of America's youth, video games, the Internet and digital TV are tugging the nation away from sports fields and fitness gyms, and onto sofas and loveseats positioned in front of computer and television screens.

Due to increased advocacy, however, many programs at the national and local levels have been created to not only help the public become more aware of this epidemic, but to also promote physical fitness and education for both the young and old. For example, back in January, Satcher helped launch the "Healthy People 2010" program, a long-term initiative to combat poor health habits and lifestyles, and encourage the mental and physical well-being of all Americans -- especially children and teenagers -- over the next ten years.

"Efforts must be based at the community level, including school programs," wrote Satcher. "Our schools have a responsibility to

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