The Institute of Medicine has issued a series of recommendations concerning the striking lack of physical fitness of young Americans. Nanci Hellmich summarizes the recommendations for “strengthening and improving programs and policies for physical activity and physical education in the school environment—including before, during, and after school.”:
• Elementary school children should spend at least 30 minutes a day in PE class; middle school and high school students should get an average of 45 minutes a day in PE. That’s 150 minutes a week for elementary kids and 225 minutes for middle and high school students.
• At least half of the PE class time should be spent doing vigorous to moderate-intensity physical activity.
• Students should do additional vigorous or moderate-intensity activity throughout the day, including during recess, during classroom breaks that are physically active or in other active-learning opportunities.
• There should be other options to be physically active before and after school, including intramural and extramural sports, active before- and after-school programs and walking/biking/skateboarding to and from school.
The report also urges that physical education, like reading and math, be treated as a core subject. Hellmich correctly diagnoses the reason why:
Currently, a third of children in the USA are overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of developing a host of debilitating and costly diseases, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Physical activity improves kids’ fitness, lowers their risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and helps build strong bones and muscles. Children who are more active have greater attention spans and better academic performance, the report says.
Since “No Child Left Behind” was passed by Congress in 2001, school districts nationwide have been hyper-focused on academic achievement and school accountability. As a result, physical education instruction in schools has taken a back seat to the time-consuming effort in preparing students for standardized, state-administered assessments. Many school districts have severely cut back on physical education requirements for graduation. The unintended consequences, according to the report, are that removing daily physical activity from the school day negatively affects attentiveness, cognitive functioning, and overall academic performance in children.
This is a big problem with few solutions. Something — art, music, classroom time for other core subjects — will have to give, unless school days are extended, or unless communities decide that investing in local schools, through higher taxes, will pay huge dividends in our children’s physical AND cognitive health (as well as in our communities themselves).
Isn’t this an investment worth making, for our children and for ourselves?