Couch potatoes: On your feet

March 08, 2007

American youths are so out of shape and childhood obesity has reached such alarming proportions that almost anything schools can do to encourage more physical fitness is welcome. So an effort by Maryland's General Assembly to require more school time for physical education deserves consideration - though it's too bad it takes a state law to get schoolchildren hopping, jumping and running around.

In fact, good physical health, which is a product of exercise, contributes to academic performance. So it makes perfect sense that children should have more active time at school. And though some educators and administrators say mandating minimum physical education time would be too expensive without additional state aid, it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. In schools where the resources and facilities simply aren't there for students to be active 30 minutes a day, the state could help out.

Nationally, childhood and teen obesity rates have tripled in the past three decades. At the same time, new research shows that the number of young people ages 12 to 19 who have had obesity surgery - an extreme form of weight reduction - has also tripled in recent years. Children in Maryland are hardly immune to this trend, and schools have an obligation to address it.

The proposed legislation would require at least 120 minutes of physical education each week in the 2010-2011 school year, going up to 150 minutes the following year and thereafter. School districts have complained that this could mean longer school days to accommodate fitness classes in addition to instruction in academic subjects required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. But school districts around the country have developed creative ways to educate their children and help them stay fit.

One model program, in use at 11 Baltimore schools, has shown that fitness and play can be provided at a reasonable cost, with minimum equipment. Sports4Kids, a decade-old program that serves nearly 50,000 children in 114 elementary and middle schools nationwide - including 3,000 kids in Baltimore - uses 15 to 30 minutes of recess time to provide physical activity, including kickball and volleyball. It's a good way to allow kids to let off steam, have some fun and get exercise - all at the same time.

Public schools in Maryland are required to offer fitness classes, and many are doing a fine job. But there is no minimum time limit, and clearly some schools are falling down on the job. If they don't want the legislature stepping in, they should step up.

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