Florida Law Aims to Curb Childhood Obesity

Published August 1, 2007

Under a law signed by Gov. Charlie Crist (R) on May 17, Florida elementary schoolchildren will participate in 150 minutes of physical education each week.

The law also encourages Florida district school boards to provide 226 minutes of P.E. each week for sixth through eighth graders, though it does not require any.

“As much as we nerds dreaded gym class,” those children will grow up to see the benefits–such as lower rates of heart disease and diabetes–said Robert Sanchez, policy director at the James Madison Institute, a free-market think tank in Tallahassee.

In addition, physical activity stimulates children, facilitating their ability to learn, said Dr. Karen J. Dowd, executive director of Florida’s Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Dance and Sport, a 25,000-member organization based near Washington, DC that supports activities aimed at achieving a healthy lifestyle.

P.E. should be enjoyable, not the grim lap-run of yesteryear, noted Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist of myexerciseplan.com, a Web site providing personalized support for exercisers.

“They’re children,” Cotton said. “It really shouldn’t be a workout time. They need to have fun and experience the joy of physical activity.”

Setting Standards

While kids have fun, adults may ultimately save some cash. Though extra P.E. time alone won’t dramatically cut the costs of childhood obesity, Sanchez said, in the long run it could eventually fend off expensive health problems.

Cotton said the toll of obesity on tax dollars is “skyrocketing with adults. Where you really need to get that down is with the children.”

According to a 2006 report released jointly by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, 16 percent of children and teens between 6 and 19–approximately 9 million of them–are already overweight, and another 31 percent are at risk of becoming so. According to the study, school-aged children need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

Although “30 minutes is better than nothing,” Cotton said the objective should be to make physical activity appealing enough that children will play P.E.-type games at home, too. School is just the place to learn to love it, he said.

“This isn’t big government coming down,” Cotton said. “This is big government taking responsibility by setting standards.”

Laying a Foundation

Though Dowd said she’s delighted Crist and legislators are committed to investing in children’s health, the new law could still see improvement next year. Currently, it allots no additional funding for P.E. classes, which means some will be taught by teachers with little formal training in that area, she said.

Furthermore, the measure only encourages middle schools to devote time to physical education, but doesn’t require them to do so.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

For more information …

“2006 Shape of the Nation Report,” published by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #21578.