CDC Urges Daily Physical Activity in Schools

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If students are to lead healthier lives, educators must prod them to flex more than their intellectual muscles while they're in school, a federal report released last week says.

Noting that more young people have become overweight in recent years, the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls on schools to diversify the physical activities they offer students and to mandate physical education courses that stretch from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The percentage of children and adolescents who are overweight has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to the Atlanta-based agency. While some of that increase can be attributed to overeating, it is also due to the fact that fewer students participate in a regular regimen of physical activity, the authors say.

Almost all states require that physical education be taught at some time during high school. But the share of high school students who attend daily PE classes has dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995, the report notes.

In addition to the benefits of improved strength and endurance, research has shown that keeping physically fit can help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

"If young people engage in more physical activity, then that will have a major effect on the health of the nation," Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, the director of the CDC's division of adolescent and school health, said in an interview last week.

More and Often

In the study published in the March 7 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC researchers reviewed existing data on physical education and public health and consulted with dozens of education and health groups--including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the American Academy of Pediatrics--to formulate 10 recommendations.

In "Guidelines for School and Community Programs to Promote Lifelong Physical Activity Among Young People," the CDC urges schools and communities to:

  • Require students to participate in daily physical activity in grades K-12;
  • Provide a safe and enjoyable environment for students to exercise in by establishing injury-prevention procedures and by discouraging the use or withholding of exercise as a punishment;
  • Implement physical education curricula and instruction that keep students active during most of the class period;
  • Offer students both competitive and noncompetitive extracurricular activities;
  • Provide training for coaches, teachers, and health-care staff members;
  • Encourage parental involvement;
  • Make the activities developmentally appropriate for students;
  • Evaluate the instruction on a regular basis;
  • Lobby for increased PE resources for young people; and
  • Implement health education curricula that help students understand the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle.

While educators generally applauded the proposals, some observers pointed out that pressures on funding and time often keep fitness goals from becoming a reality in schools.

With tight budgets, physical education is "one of the first things to go, next to band," Louise Bauer, a school health expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said last week.

"When push comes to shove, the priority is math, science, and reading, and anything above and beyond that is considered fluff," she said.

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