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.
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With no extra time in the school day, and no extra funding for the law, necessity has become the mother of invention. Take one of Broward County's new lesson plans that is recommended to elementary schools: Students perform PE during the math segment by circling the classrooms and stretching to measure desks, windows, and white boards.Skip to next paragraph
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At Gilchrist Elementary School in Tallahassee, PE teacher Neeley Knight has adopted a "learning through movement" program called "Brain Gym," which uses stretching exercises to try to improve thought and mental capacity.
In Polk County, according to PE curriculum coordinator Don Knitt, several schools are integrating PE with academic lessons in other ways. "Our focus is not to reduce physical education time but to concentrate on activities that will help improve their learning ability," he says. "PE supports other academic disciplines."
Also, fitness doesn't stop with the children. The Broward school district encourages its staff to take up its provision of free membership in a national gymnasium chain, as well as to participate fully in their students' exercise sessions.
"It gives me a good workout, too," says Purvin, who claims to be fitter than ever to pursue her outside hobby of line dancing. "But teachers are excused jumping," she jokes.
Lauren, one of the students who wants to try out for swimming, thinks it's "cool" that her teacher not only choreographs the class sessions, but leads them, too. "It shows us that it's important to stay active and get stronger for when we're older," says the 10-year-old, who also exercises with weekend Frisbee games and long walks with the family dog.
Experts in childhood obesity agree that schools alone cannot solve a problem in which the percentage of overweight 6- to 11-year-olds in the US has leapt from 6.5 in 1980 to 18.8 a decade and a half later, according to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"The law in Florida is a good one, and it's definitely a step in the right direction," says James Sallis, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and program director of Active Living Research at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"By itself it won't solve anything. Neither will removing vending machines from schools nor improving school lunches," Professor Sallis says. "But take those things together and encourage children to walk or cycle to school, make them more active after school and at weekends, and you begin to make progress."
He also cautions, "My issue is that a lot of elementary school teachers have responsibility for PE teaching, but may not have the training. Students might get 30 minutes of PE, but it might not be of good quality."
Florida's aim is to guide its youngest students away from a path leading to the state's 11 percent of high school students who are obese, according to the CDC.
"We need to be teaching children to make good, solid, healthy choices early in life so they can form the habits that will last a lifetime," says Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Charlie Crist (R), Florida's governor.
Crist, a former high school quarterback who prides himself on his own physical fitness, is backing up the elementary school initiative with the eight-week Governor's Fitness Challenge, which is scheduled to begin in January and encourages elementary and middle schools to take part in physical exercises and tests.