Schools Drop the Ball on Improving Fitness
The past two decades have seen a fitness revolution of sorts in the United States. But, with scattered exceptions, that revolution has not found its way into the schools, physical-education experts say.
While adult Americans have flocked to Nautilus machines and aerobics dance classes--the National Athletic and Health Institute estimates that $7 billion is spent each year on health clubs, bicycles, and running shoes--physical-education classes in schools across the country have changed little.
As a consequence, the experts said, most children are out of shape and tend to become even less active as they get older. Physical-education programs that stress running and proper movement instead of games that exclude many students, said one specialist, "are more the exception than the rule."
"Far too many classes are just roll calls and kids standing around scratching their heads," said David B. Marsh, the director of health and physical education in the Ridgewood, N.J., public schools.
C. Carson Conrad, the executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness for the last 12 years, added: "I've never seen physical education in as low morale as it is today."
Mr. Conrad said he has written letters to 12 members of the House of Representatives, including Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., asking for a comprehensive study of physical education and its later effect on the health and fitness of adults and on national defense.
The Committee of Physical Fitness of the Defense Department last month issued a statement expressing concern over the physical condition of high-school graduates who volunteer for military service.
Surveys Show Lag
Surveys taken in the 1979-80 and 1980-81 school years by the Amateur Athletic Union (aau) and Nabisco Brands Inc. found that only 43 percent of participating students could perform exercises such as running, jumping, situps, and pullups up to the minimum standards for their age and size.
In fact, the survey results suggest, students become less fit as they progress through school. The average 17-year-old male, for example, takes 12.8 seconds to run 100 yards, while the average 14-year-old takes 12.6 seconds. And the average 17-year-old girl can do 38 modified pushups; the average 12-year-old girl can do 43.
More fundamentally important, according to Thomas B. Gilliam, a health-care consultant in Cleveland, is the small amount of time in which children engage in physical activity.
Ideally, Mr. Gilliam said, children will exercise enough each day to raise their heart rates to more than 160 beats per minute for 30 minutes, and to 141-to-160 beats per minute for 43 minutes--a total of one hour and 13 minutes of active play daily.
But according to a survey of Michigan children that Mr. Gilliam conducted during 1974, the average child spent only 18 minutes per summer day in intensive physical activities, even though most children had the whole day free.
Girls--"due to cultural differences," Mr. Gilliam said--are much less active than boys. According to the study, they spent seven minutes engaged in the physically intense activities.
And the situation has not changed since the survey was taken, Mr. Gilliam said.
"We spend so much time worrying about how fast they can run and how many pushups they can do," Mr. Gilliam said. "But the real test is what they do in their spare time. That shows what kind of physical education they have."
Wynn Updike, professor of physical education at Indiana University, said that adults usually continue the habits they developed while in the physical-education classes.
"You have to know what it feels like to be in good physical shape," he said. "People who have that experience know that they don't have to be tired all the time. But you need to get that awareness at an early age."
The 'Typical' Program
There is no nationwide study of state physical-education requirements and the way that those classes are run, but officials at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (aahperd) and the President's Council are preparing such a survey.
Educators said, however, that there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest what a "typical" physical-education class offers.
In a majority of cases, they said, the class stresses playing games rather than working on calisthenics, running, and weight-training to get into shape. During those games, the less talented students often spend most of the period sitting on the bench or playing positions that require little physical activity.
And some games--such as softball, archery, golf, and dodge-ball--require little physical exertion for any student.
"It becomes very discouraging," said Mr. Gilliam. "Teachers fail to use the intensive component in the classes. In a typical class, the kids are put into lines with five or six children in a line. And there are eight or nine minutes of physical activity in a 25-minute period."
The typical pe program, he and others said, starts with "cat and rat" games in the early grades and moves into competitive sports as early as the 3rd grade. From the 5th or 6th grade on, there are few activities besides the major team sports--football, soccer, basketball, and softball for boys; field hockey, basketball, and volleyball for girls.
"It should be a developmental curriculum," said Mr. Gilliam. "We don't teach kids what they're not ready for in other subjects--we don't teach geometry in the 3rd grade. All we need to do for pe is what we do for other subjects."
Teachers' Colleges Blamed
The educators interviewed blamed the teachers' colleges for the way classes are structured. Most prospective physical-education instructors are gifted athletes and see fitness as an outgrowth of participation in team sports, they said, and the college curricula reinforce that approach.
"What the colleges prepare are teachers good in one sport, but incapable of teaching a class," said Roswell Merrick, the executive director of the National Association for Sports and Physical Education, a division of aahperd. "Coaches are great at after-school sports but lousy at teaching gym class."
Adds John Berryman, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Washington: "Look at the Universities of Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Marshall University--you look at the curriculum and they have to take baseball, swimming, tennis, volleyball. The first move has to be better-trained teachers ... putting emphasis on fitness and exercise."
An example of an "ideal" preparatory program, in Mr. Merrick's opinion, can be found in the University of Michigan's School of Education.
All students are required to take several classes in kinesiological and physiological bases of human movement, psychological and sociological bases of human movement, the history and principles of physical education, kinesiology, testing physical education, and motor movement.
In addition, students are required to take courses in human growth, several noneducation courses, and courses focused on developing skills in many sports.
aahperd's consultant for elementary education, Margie R. Hanson, complained that few education schools pay much attention to elementary-school physical education. Before the early 1970's most elementary schools did not have full-time physical education teachers, she said.
Most physical-education programs at teachers' colleges still only offer "one or two courses for elementary preparation," Ms. Hanson said. Classroom teachers with no physical-education training are assigned gym duty.
Physical-education and sports programs are often the first to be cut when budget problems arise, educators said.
Fifty-one percent of the nation's schools do not have adequate funding for their sports and physical education programs, according to a survey conducted last spring by the American Sports Education Institute and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
The states that are in the poorest shape, according to the responses of more than 4,000 school officials nationwide, are West Virginia (89 percent reported funding problems), Alabama and North Carolina (88 percent), Delaware (83 percent), and South Carolina (81 percent).
Despite a consensus that elementary programs are the most important part of physical education, they are in the worst finan-cial shape, Mr. Gilliam and others said.
"If a millage [increase] is defeated they cut the elementary program" instead of a high-school program, he noted. It would be better to cut from the top down, he said, because students taught good fitness habits early tend to keep up their physical activity regardless of the formal program.
Many elementary schools do not have facilities for a full-fledged physical-education program in the first place. "They use what they call a 'cafetorium,' a combination gym and cafeteria," Mr. Gilliam said.
The pressures of budget cuts for both public and private schools, said R. Inslee Clark, the headmaster of the Horace Mann School in New York City, leave them little latitude to improve the content of their physical-education classes.
"Where you get a real divergence from quality is where they're cutting back or where they're under pressure to produce a winning team," he said. "They're doing what they can just to stay alive."
Opinions on approaches to a restructuring of physical education--and on the question of whether the subject should be changed in the first place--vary widely.
The Paideia Proposal, a wide-ranging manifesto for changing the overall structure of elementary and secondary education, suggests mandatory physical education and participation in intramural sports. It does not specify how those activities should be carried out, however.
aahperd promotes "movement" instruction, in which students are taught specific skills that they can later use in sports--especially the so-called lifetime sports, such as tennis and other racket sports, swimming, and soccer.
In a movement program (see accompanying story), students are taught ''space awareness" by using their bodies for a variety of activities. Children use balls, rings, beanbags, tires, and balance beams--in fact, about any safe object available--for the purpose of developing specific skills.
A key part of the program, said Mr. Merrick, is allowing children to invent their own games and avoid the competitiveness that sometimes develops into the habit of uncooperativeness.
Gradually, the students learn to apply the specific movement skills to game applications. By junior high school or high school, the students are playing in games.
But Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Berryman, among others, said the movement program is sometimes "too soft." While movement exercises give a student many of the skills that will be needed to function on a basketball court or soccer field, they said, they do not do enough to give the student endurance, strength, or agility.
Mr. Berryman said the movement advocates put too much emphasis on making class pleasurable. "I didn't like Latin, but I was forced to do Latin grammar," said Mr. Berryman. "Teachers who know better must take control. We're not in a popularity contest. Why should physical education be fun?"
If carried out correctly, a tough exercise program will be embraced by students, Mr. Berryman said. "Kids could like it," he said. "There's nothing more important to some of these kids than looking good and feeling good."
Mr. Marsh said running is the most popular physical-education elective course among high-school students. In his classes, students start out running one-half mile and gradually increases the distance to four miles in the three-week course.
"Kids I never thought I would ever see running are saying, 'Hey, this is terrific,"' Mr. Marsh said.
Moreover, Mr. Marsh and others said, once students become part of such active programs, they spend more of their own time in similar activities.
In a 1979 experimental "intervention" program, Mr. Gilliam said, Michigan students were taught about the physical habits that lead to a risk of heart trouble and were put in the "intensity-oriented" program that Mr. Gilliam recommends.
The result: "The children were more active the following summer. ... The number of minutes spent in intensive activities almost doubled to 33 minutes. And they were eating more nutritionally."
But besides offering strenuous fitness programs, the Ridgewood schools offer several less demanding activities such as golf and softball, Mr. Marsh said. The idea, he said, is to keep the interest of the students with fewer athletic inclinations.
"Education has to be more than just fitness," Mr. Marsh said. "You have to give the students positive attitudes, show them it's not a matter of punishment to run. If you turn off the 'Fat Freddies,' they'll just go home and eat cake. Golf is a legitimate activity if paired with an active activity. We have kids that we have to force to run."
State Government Role
For any reform to take root, Mr. Berryman said, the state must be more specific in its requirements for teacher certification and the content of physical-education classes. State regulations in both areas are too vague for improvement on the sports-oriented programs, educators said.
But, if anything, state governments appear to be backing off physical-education requirements. "It's a sad story," said Mr. Conrad, that California and Illinois are both considering loosening high-school graduation requirements. Pennsylvania's nominee for secretary of education, Robert Wilburne, asked that state's Board of Education to postpone consideration of ending high-school physical-education requirements.
"Changes are very isolated--there are always one or two people that take it upon themselves to do it," said Mr. Berryman. "There's never any leadership from the top down."
Physical education has not always been so heavily dominated by sport. Guy M. Lewis, a sports historian, said that until about 1906 physical education consisted of formal training directed by physicians.
That changed, said Mr. Lewis, an associate professor of physical education at the University of Massa-chusetts, with the growth of intercollegiate sports and the belief that team sport builds character and helps to solve social problems. Among the most vocal advocates of this view were President Theodore Roosevelt and the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis.
By 1929, the public schools in 46 states were required to provide physical education. Those programs were usually run by athletic directors with impressive backgrounds in team sports but no background in physical education. Eventually, physical education and sport became synonymous in the schools.
Until recently, girls' programs avoided the physical education\sport nexus. But educators said that the movement for equal rights for the sexes has gradually changed the girls' programs.
Most physical-education programs, said Mr. Merrick, are now at least partly coeducational. Gone, he said, is the "myth" that boys and girls cannot work together without "hanky-panky."
Hurt Some Programs
But Lucille M. Burkett, the director of health and physical education for Cleveland public schools, said Title IX, which bars federally financed schools and colleges from discriminating on the basis of sex has sometimes hurt girls' programs.
"There used to be an idea in women's sport that all girls had a right to play," said Ms. Burkett. "Everybody in this field had a service ideal. And we had, at that time, a fine secondary physical-education program for girls, much more inclusive than the programs for boys."
"With Title IX, we have to have teams like the boys do. And we now don't have the many intramural programs for girls that we had up to 1972-73. The girls' teams are far better than they used to be, but very few girls get to play. And the stars get all the attention."