Find those gym shorts! Phys Ed makes comeback

ecky Allen is awhirl on the gym floor. The teacher's aide is a little early for the day's first physical education class, but she's eager to test out the rollerskates.

The white-booted skates are Black Elementary School's newest experiment in physical education, one of many creative ways that this district north of Houston is making sure students learn how to flex their muscles - as well as their minds.

"When I was in school, I remember how we used to make fun of the one fat kid in school," says Ms. Allen. "Nobody does that now, because there are so many of [them]."

After a decade of reducing physical education in favor of beefed-up academic programs, schools across the nation are putting kids back into gym shoes (and skates).

At a time when physical activity for adolescents is at an all-time low, and obesity at an all-time high, teachers are broadening their concept of a well-rounded school routine to include regular exercise.

It's especially true here in Texas, where a recent survey from the US Surgeon General's Office found that the state had four of the ten "fattest cities" in America, with Houston topping the list.

A day later, while just a coincidence, the State Board of Education mandated that elementary-school students must take at least 30 minutes of PE each day, or 135 minutes a week. Seven years ago, that requirement was dismantled in an effort to improve educational standards.

"As the pressure to improve academics increases, music, art, and PE are always the first to be compromised," says Judy Young, the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) in Reston, Va. "But we are getting more and more evidence that kids do better academically when they have physical activity during the day."

Her group recommends 150 weekly minutes of PE for elementary-school children and 225 weekly minutes at the middle- and high-school level.

It's a recommendation that very few school districts are following.

A full 25 percent of America's school children currently have no PE requirement, and only 44 percent exercise daily, according to the NASPE. And many school districts that do require it allow extra-curricular activities, such as cheerleading and band, to be substitutes.

That is unacceptable, says Dr. Young. If the goal is to teach children ways to be active for the rest of their lives, then physical activity must be taught in a classroom environment. "Physical activity in a marching band is incidental. And what happens when kids get out of school? All they've learned is how to carry a tuba," she says.

In California, for instance, elementary-school students are required to have 100 minutes of physical activity a week; older kids must have 200 minutes a week.

Regardless of that requirement, a California Department of Education study released in December found that 77 percent of adolescents were out of shape, unable to meet set standards such as running a mile or doing push-ups and pull-ups.

Illinois is the only state that currently requires daily PE in grades K-12, and it's being hailed as a national model for other states. Instead of stressing team sports, their "New PE" model focuses on lifetime fitness.

It couldn't come at a more appropriate time. Children today spend more time than ever in front of the television, playing video games, and eating junk food. In fact, many schools have filled their cafeterias with fast-food chains.

"Kids love it, but it's a step backwards for overall health," says Albert Hergenroeder, chief of adolescent medicine and sports medicine services at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "Sometimes the closest thing to a vegetable in schools these days is ketchup."

While the daily high-school PE requirement dropped from 42 percent to 26 percent of high schools in the 1990s, obesity rates rose during that same period. Today, 11 percent of adolescents are overweight and 16 percent are at risk of becoming overweight. Dr. Hergenroeder finds it easy to draw a correlation between these two factors.

While he sees the new Texas requirement - which will be formally adopted in March - as an important step forward, Hergenroeder would like to see the daily regimen extended from K-6 to K-12.

Making sure children will be able to take their skills beyond the school gym and into adulthood is critical, experts say - especially when considering that obesity rates among all Americans rose 60 percent in the 1990s.

Lawmakers seem to be listening. In December, Congress allocated $50 million for school districts to fight physical inactivity and boost PE programs. That's a 1,000 percent increase over last year's allocation.

That kind of financial commitment is important because mandating that children spend more time in gym won't solve the problem, says Marina Zepeda, Black Elementary School's PE teacher. The Aldine School District, a low socioeconomic area of the county comprised of mainly African-Americans and Hispanics, requires that elementary-school kids spend 45 minutes in PE every other day.

For her part, Ms. Zepeda says she tries to find activities that children in this area wouldn't normally be exposed to, such as the two-week roller skating program. Middle and high-school students are able to try rock climbing, bicycling, tent construction, and kayaking - all activities that stress fun instead of competition.

Back in the Black Elementary School gym, this group of 2nd graders laugh and scream and fall over each other as they whiz around orange cones while "Rock Around the Clock" and "Grease" blare from the boombox. At the end of class, they sit, sweaty and smiling, on mats in the center of the gym. Nine-year-old Santiago Nuñez unlaces his boots and proclaims: "I like PE 'cause we get to play."

As they file out for their next class, some students stop to buy Sour Straws, M&Ms, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups at a table set up in the corner of the gym. Ms. Zepeda is trying to raise money for a new playground and is selling the only thing these youngsters want to buy.

"PE is fun," says pudgy Natasha Isadore, as she stuffs a package of Twizzlers in her pocket on her way to language class. "The teachers are nice to sell candy."

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