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Kids Gain Weight When PE is Dropped

June 14, 2000

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Wobbling on a pair of inline skates, 16-year-old Amma Kankam leaned on a classmate and, following her teachers’ instructions, took a few tentative ``step-step-glides″ in an end-of-the-term skating class at Mount Vernon High School.

Sweat gleaming on her forehead, Kankam came to a halting stop and smiled. She said if she got good enough, she would take up inline skating this summer. ``That’s why I’m trying to learn,″ she said. As if on cue, she lost her balance and tumbled to the floor. ``She was a lot worse a few days ago,″ said classmate Channaile Gordon, helping her up.

Despite tumbles and collisions _ the kids wear helmets and protective gear _ Gordon and her classmates said they’d rather learn skating in PE class than play flag football or softball. ``We actually want to do this,″ said Lexi Sack, 16. ``It’s an easy way to exercise.″

With kids getting more sedentary and obesity among children and adults now a national health concern, schools all over the country have started offering skating, aerobics, power-walking and mountain biking.

The aim is not only to get kids interested in gym class, with its dreaded uniforms and team-picking that agonized the less athletically inclined kids, but to train them in physical activities that will keep them from becoming the next generation of couch potatoes.

Some physical educators call it ``The New PE.″

``We are trying to bridge that gateway from the school environment to living a healthy lifestyle when they leave school,″ said Mary Marks, health and physical education coordinator for Fairfax County public schools in northern Virginia, which has revamped its physical education program to emphasize lifetime fitness. ``We hope that kids will like the activities and continue on in their adult life.″

A dramatic rise in childhood obesity _ 10 percent to 15 percent of American kids are overweight or obese, double the number in 1980 _ has occurred as many states have dropped requirements that kids take gym class every day, as recommended by the U.S. surgeon general.

Only 21 percent of adolescents are taking one or more gym classes a week, according to a recent University of North Carolina study that said gym class cutbacks were partly to blame for the rise in overweight kids.

Illinois is the only state that still requires daily gym class and four years of PE for high schoolers. Virginia requires two years; many states require just one year of PE to graduate and let kids in band or ROTC slide.

Even in Illinois, schools can get around the requirement. Nineteen percent of the state’s 895 school districts have received waivers for the daily requirement to devote more time for other classes or because they don’t have proper facilities for PE classes.

Under pressure to improve test scores, school officials say they have to cut back on gym to free up class time for math, reading and other core subjects. Chicago public school officials wanted to reduce PE requirements to two years for high schoolers.

``People were asking, ’Do our kids need to be playing or studying?‴ said Tom Hernandez, spokesman for the state education board.

Experts say a decline in mandatory PE classes is just one of many factors contributing to the problem of overweight kids. Computer games and TV keep kids indoors; busy parents with no time to cook rely on fast or prepared foods that are loaded with fat; kids left alone after school are filling up on junk food, and children in high-crime areas stay away from neighborhood playgrounds.

``These are all changes that have occurred simultaneously with the epidemic,″ said William Dietz, CDC’s nutrition and physical activity czar.

Kids who don’t get enough exercise could be at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and other ailments, so teaching them to stay active when they’re young is important to staving off health problems later in life, says Fairfax County’s Marks.

The importance of physical education has even gotten the attention of lawmakers in Congress. Several are pushing to add a $400 million grant program to expand and improve PE in public schools to an education funding bill now before Congress.


On the Net:

U.S. Surgeon General report on physical activity and health:


National Association for Sport and Physical Education for text of proposed PE grant program:


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