As Physical Exercise Declines, Childhood Obesity Soars

Published November 1, 2003

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 15 percent of children aged 16 to 19 are overweight, a number that has doubled in the past two decades. At the same time, many school districts across the country have de-emphasized physical education classes.

Research shows 60 percent of overweight 5- to 10-year-old children already have at least one risk factor for heart disease, including elevated blood pressure or insulin levels. Although evaluation and treatment of obesity in childhood offer the best hope for preventing disease progression with its associated morbidities into adulthood, how far should schools go in helping curb childhood obesity?

The American lifestyle of convenience produces fewer opportunities in daily life to burn calories: Children watch more television; many neighborhoods lack sidewalks; household chores are assisted by labor-saving machinery. Diet also has changed: We’re eating larger portions of less-healthy food than ever before.

The results are very noticeable. In Michigan, for example, more than a quarter of children aged 6-11 are obese, or extremely overweight. Among those aged 12-17, 25 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys are obese. School officials in Arkansas are planning to provide parents with “health report cards” in an attempt to identify extremely overweight children and the health risks they face.

In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General released a “Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity.” The study warned physical inactivity has become a nationwide epidemic.

The Surgeon General, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Association for Sport and Physical Education all have recommended a minimum of 30 minutes of physical education every school day for every elementary and secondary school student.

“As physical education classes have declined, technology, behavior, and nutritional habits have changed to allow a more sedentary lifestyle,” said Jenni Gaster Sopko, public relations manager for the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

“We urge all our local PTAs to support daily physical education programs as an integral part of children’s education,” added Sopko.

Parent Concerns

A recent survey from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) indicates parents who are concerned about escalating childhood obesity rates and the rise of Type II diabetes see daily physical activity as key to optimal health and academic success. More than 76 percent of these parents think more school physical education could help control or prevent childhood obesity.

NASPE has developed a set of guidelines to help principals, teachers, and parents better assess whether school programs would promote a healthier lifestyle. The list identifies formal instruction from an accredited professional, providing adequate equipment, safe indoor and outdoor facilities, and a developed, sequential curriculum as necessities for any physical education program.

“We want parents asking about their child’s physical education. Oftentimes they don’t think about it,” said Paula Kun, spokesperson for the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

“All our research shows people more physically active can better prevent obesity,” Kun added. “But children need to be taught how and why to be physically fit and that is something that should be a part of the curriculum.”

Daily Activity at Sherrills Ford

At Sherrills Ford Elementary School near Charlotte, North Carolina, physical education is considered an integral part of every child’s learning experience, according to physical education instructor Russ Darden.

“We strive to justify physical education daily here at Sherrills Ford,” said Darden, who incorporates many activities into his program, from juggling to hula-hooping to general health education.

Darden utilizes the health and physical education concepts recommended by the Healthful Living Education program. Developed by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the program promotes behaviors that contribute to a healthful lifestyle and improved quality of life for all students.

“My goal for all my students is for them to take a small piece of the Sherrills Ford physical education experience and apply it in their adult years,” said Darden. “That includes healthy ways of eating and the importance of exercise. Children need to know why the activities they participate in here will help them long-term. It’s not just about having fun, although that is an important by-product.”

Mike Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Michigan and writes frequently on education issues. His email address is [email protected].