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Florida fights childhood obesity with new gym rule

Schools must comply with a state law requiring children in kindergarten through fifth grade to receive 30 minutes of continuous physical education every day.

By Richard LuscombeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2008

Workout: Students exercise at Forest Hills Elementary in Coral Springs, Fla.

Richard Luscombe

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Coral Springs, Fla.

James Destilus and Kenneth Gutierrez want to be on the football team when they move up to middle school next year. Mike Lawson prefers basketball. And Lauren Rebaza and Jhullyza Calderon will try out for swimming.

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The fifth-graders might have different sporting ambitions, but they're working toward their goals in the same way: strutting around their classroom, flapping their arms like roosters, and singing at the top of their voices to a song called "Chicken Fat."

It's great fun for the students, but this unorthodox approach to fitness also has its serious side. It helps the school, Forest Hills Elementary in Coral Springs, Fla., comply with a state law that came into effect this semester requiring children in kindergarten through fifth grade to receive 30 minutes of continuous physical education every day.

While efforts within the education system to curb soaring rates of childhood obesity are not new, Florida's recent inclusion of the word "continuous" presents a specific difficulty to schools trying to juggle already crowded curricula.

Before the law was implemented, there were reports of some schools including the children's walk to the cafeteria at lunchtime as part of a looser requirement of 150 minutes' exercise, in any combination, per week.

"There's no doubt this was a challenge, and we had a lot of planning to do, sitting down with our teachers to find a way to get this exercise in without disrupting their schedule," says Vince Dawes, assistant principal of Forest Hills Elementary, which has 620 students.

"The teachers rose to the challenge, and the kids love what they're doing," Mr. Dawes says. "I walk around the school, and I'll hear a lot of noise and music from somewhere, and wonder, 'what was that?' And there will be a class full of kids jumping up and down with big smiles on their faces."

Forest Hills, which is part of the Broward County Schools District, came up with some of the most creative responses to the new requirement, according to Elly Zanin, curriculum specialist in physical education for the district.

One of Forest Hills' first steps was finding space in the timetable. Each class now uses daily recess for formal PE, whether that is yoga, pilates, or routines like "Chicken Fat," which fifth-grade teacher Patricia Purvin prepared for her class.

Videos entitled "Forest Hills Fever" are also shown daily. The 30-minute programs are professionally produced outside the school and feature a variety of activities, of which the children say they prefer mock martial-art routines.

And parts of the Forest Hills schoolyard have been transformed from general playground to "designated outdoor fitness areas" for activities under the guidance of PE teacher Joseph Alfonso, who sees each class at least once a week. In better weather, this is where Mrs. Purvin's class would usually be flapping to the chicken dance or performing another favorite, the "Cha Cha Slide."

The Broward school district has "one of the shortest school days, and of course it's a challenge to fit it in alongside the academic demands," Ms. Zanin says. "That's why the schools have had to be creative."

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