A 2013 study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health laid the problem out in stark terms: Fewer than 50 percent of US youth currently get the recommended amount of moderate to vigorous exercise they need to become healthy adults. Not surprisingly, the amount of movement deemed necessary varies by age; the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests 150 minutes per week for elementary school children and 225 minutes a week for junior and senior high school students.
Indeed, whether it is through game playing during recess, attending regular gym classes, playing a sport, taking dance, karate, Pilates or yoga classes, skateboarding, biking or running, the upshot is the same: Kids, experts agree, should be physically active and should not spend all of their time sitting in class or lazing in front of a TV or electronic screen at home.
But many do.
In fact, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, 44 percent of school administrators admit that they've cut physical education or recess to focus on test prep. This policy shift did not rankle the Bush administration; similarly, Arne Duncan's Department of Education has not uttered a peep to contest it, instead focusing on Common Core testing rather than most other pedagogical matters. Even more disturbing, since there is no federal law requiring that physical education be taught in US schools, the 50 million kids in grades K-12 are subjected to an uneven patchwork of gym requirements, with local school boards or state education agencies determining how much, and when, physical education will be offered.
"We have a national consensus about what PE should look like," said Carly Braxton, senior manager of advocacy at the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). "At the same time, states and districts are all over the board. Even though we know that kids who are healthy and active have lower absenteeism, better concentration, higher endurance, and do better overall, how much PE is required for graduation, or even whether a licensed PE teacher is needed to teach the class, varies from state to state and district to district."
The range is stunning. Idaho, for example, has no high school gym requirement while Florida requires students to take two semesters of PE between grades nine and 12. Nevada mandates gym in high school, but not in elementary; South Dakota has no requirements whatsoever, and lets local districts determine what will be offered. What's more, only six states - Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York and Vermont - require gym classes to be provided at every grade level.
This lack of consistency not only worries parents, health-care providers and educators, but also has caused the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to voice tepid concern. "Today's schools face intense pressure to focus on standardized tests and consequently have placed less emphasis on the broader view of a healthy mind in a healthy body," their website notes. Despite this, the CDC makes it clear that the two are inseparable, adding that "health and success in school are interrelated." In addition, the agency notes that 50 years ago, 5 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 were considered obese. Today, the percentage is a whopping 19.6 percent, putting youth in this category at risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and joint and mobility problems.
But let's put these alarming facts aside for a moment and return, instead, to today's unbridled devotion to standardized tests as markers of achievement. According to Megan Bartlett, chief program officer at Up2Us Sports, a national pro-fitness youth organization, "Studies have shown that the more physically active the child is, the better he or she will do in school and the better he or she will do on all kinds of tests. There is a link between physical activity, brain development and achievement. We're using this fact to push for returning physical activity to schools."
Still, despite being a proud PE booster, Bartlett recognizes that improving the way gym is taught - increasing the range of subjects offered and making sure all students, including the disabled and non-athletic, are able to participate without ridicule - is key to creating a culture that encourages fitness, no matter the person's skill level. "Many students hate the exclusivity of gym and the way it is sometimes used to marginalize the less athletic kids," she said. "If you structure it in terms of student progress rather than performance, it is far better. If a student sees that he or she is improving at a particular game or sport, it is really motivating and keeps the child engaged. This is true even if they're making only small progress."
Bartlett recommends that schools give students choices, something that she recognizes may be difficult to impossible for low-resourced programs. Nonetheless, she advocates dividing a gym into stations, with, for example, one area for jumping rope, another for stretching, and a third for skill-based, high-intensity, competitive sports. This, she adds, will allow kids with different abilities and interests to work toward a common goal: being active. She further suggests low-cost equipment - like high-bounce Z balls and a game called Smack Fu, which involves a weighted object that can be thrown around or pitched over a net - as alternatives to more costly gear.
Choice, says parent Edie Rodriguez (a pseudonym), would greatly benefit her daughter, a ninth grader at a small public high school in New York City's East Harlem. "Milagros has gym twice a week and it is super punitive," she told Truthout. "If the girls don't have gray sweatpants, they get a zero. If they forget their sneakers, they get a zero. If they don't participate enough, they get a zero." Rodriguez adds that she has overheard Milagros and her friends discussing the class and expressing frustration that team sports are the only option. "The girls who are more aggressive and athletic than Milagros dominate. When I went to parent-teacher night, I met with the gym teacher and asked him if he could do something to make sure the less aggressive girls were able to participate. He was totally dismissive, telling me, 'I can't make your daughter like the class.' When I went to the principal, he was more sympathetic, but his attitude was, 'Yeah, I know it's bad, but it's just something we have to do.'"
The situation is completely different for Julia Fishman's daughter, a sophomore at a better-funded public high school in New Paltz, a small town several hours north of New York City. "Kate has gym for half the year every other day," Fishman said. "There are sports teams for the kids who like them, but there is also a weight room with mats where the kids can stretch, do crunches, push-ups, sit-ups, or work with the free weights. Most of the time, the kids have a choice and Kate prefers the weight room. Team sports are not her interest, but she does wish the school had yoga or Zumba classes."
The linchpin, of course, is funding. SHAPE reports that 61 percent of physical education teachers operate with annual budgets of less than $1,000, with the median a paltry $764 per year. The result is that poor districts typically have to scramble for gym supplies, while richer districts can typically raise supplemental revenue from parents or members of the community. This, of course, enables them to offer everything from climbing walls, to in-line skating areas, to dance classes.
Clare McReynolds, a student at Fordham University, has studied the fitness barriers facing residents of the Bronx, one of the poorest cities in the United States. With 29.8 percent of its 1.4 million residents living below the poverty line in 2013, and a median household income of $34,388, the borough also has one of the highest asthma and obesity rates in the country.
"Residents tell me that they can't make fitness a priority because there is so much else going on in their lives," McReynolds told Truthout. "They say they can't take time to exercise, but it's more than this. Fitness has economic, social and community aspects that interplay. Fitness is not the norm in the Bronx. There is also the issue of safety. People don't want their kids to go outdoors for fear of being influenced by gangs or tempted by alcohol or drugs, so they favor indoor activities like TV. Schools don't let the kids go outside either; they don't have play yards because the spaces they once had for running and jumping are filled with trailers that are used to alleviate severe classroom overcrowding throughout the borough."
Furthermore, there's the issue of co-located programs, where several small schools are housed in one enormous building. This, too, plays a role in limiting PE classes since the buildings typically have one gym that has to be shared by everyone. In addition, poor air quality and parks known to be unsafe and filled with rubble push exercise off the agenda for most Bronx parents and educators.
"The emphasis," McReynolds said, "is on test taking and since PE is not tested, it is not on anyone's radar."
Getting it back on the radar is essential, according to groups like Up2Us Sports and SHAPE. "We want to see physical education classified as a core subject in every school," SHAPE's Carly Braxton said. "The Every Child Achieves Act passed out of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in mid-April and it would do this. We expect it to go before the full House and Senate later this year. If PE becomes a core subject, every PE teacher will have to be a professional, licensed like teachers of other academic subjects, and schools will have to include PE in the curriculum."
In addition to Up2Us Sports and SHAPE, the legislation has the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Business Roundtable, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, The Education Trust and the National Association of State Boards of Education.