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Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as PE Promotes Active Lifestyle Among Adolescents, Study Finds

PE Promotes Active Lifestyle Among Adolescents, Study Finds

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Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say they have found concrete evidence to back up what child-health experts have known intuitively for years: Students who do not participate in regular physical education or community recreation programs are far more likely to become couch potatoes.

While the evidence supports a critical role for physical education in school, the researchers found, the overwhelming majority of middle and high school students are not enrolled in PE courses. That low level of participation may be particularly critical for poor and minority students, who often also lack recreational opportunities outside of school.

Inactivity has been found to put children and adults at greater risk of obesity and serious health problems.

"Despite the marked and significant impact of participation in school PE programs on physical-activity patterns of U.S. adolescents, few adolescents participated in such programs," says the report, "Determinants of Adolescent Physical Activity and Inactivity Patterns," which was sponsored in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. A summary of the findings appears in this month's Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"National-level strategies must include attention to school PE and community recreation programs, particularly for those segments of the U.S. population without access to resources and opportunities that allow participation in physical activity," the report says.

Using the 1996 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers studied data on nearly 18,000 middle and high school students, including nearly 4,000 African-American, 3,200 Hispanic, and 1,350 Asian-American students. The study considered environmental and demographic determinants of activity and inactivity, including where students lived, the incidence of violent crime, their parents' socioeconomic status and levels of education, and whether they participated in physical education or community recreation programs. Among the nationally representative sample, eight in 10 students reported that they were not enrolled in PE courses.

Those students who reported regular participation in organized physical activities were much more likely to be highly active, both in and out of school, than students who were not involved. And students in high-crime areas and from poor and minority families reported a greater tendency toward inactivity than their white, suburban peers.

Pressed for Time

Over the past decade, physical education requirements have been whittled down in many districts, pushed out by a stronger focus on standards-driven curricula in core subjects, an increase in technology-related classes, and other pressures that drain time from the school day.

While most states require some physical education for students, only Illinois mandates daily classes for all students.

"We now have an accumulation of evidence that physical education not only [encourages] physical activity [in school], but activity beyond the classroom as well," said Judith C. Young, the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which represents PE teachers and has been urging states to reinstitute comprehensive PE programs. "We are trying to get people to be active outside of class, just like we want children to read outside of school."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, inactivity and poor diet have resulted in almost a doubling of the percentage of overweight youths in the past two decades, putting them at a much higher risk of developing disease and chronic health problems later in life. About one in five children in the United States is considered obese, according to the latest estimates.

Almost half of young people ages 12 to 21 do not participate in vigorous physical activity on a regular basis, according to CDC data, and daily participation in physical education classes by high school students dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 1997. The CDC recommends daily physical education and health education for students in grades K-12. In general, most elementary school pupils nationwide are enrolled in some form of physical education.

"PE really fills an important role in increasing activity among American kids," said Penny Gordon-Larsen, a postdoctoral fellow in multidisciplinary nutrition studies at the University of North Carolina and one of the authors of the report. "For a lot of low-income families who don't have resources in their neighborhoods, the school is available to all kids, and physical education can equalize access so that all kids have the resources to be active."

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Page 6

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