Richfield Elementary principal Chris Lineberry wants well-rounded students, not well-rounded waistlines. That’s why kids at the rural Stanly County, North Carolina, school take daily breaks from math and reading for a little Tae Bo at their desks or a brisk walk around the campus.
“Testing and accountability are essential, but the purpose of school is not testing,” Lineberry says. “We would like to see healthful living become as common as reading.”
Richfield’s 300 students began their exercise regime last year, and already, Lineberry says, there’s been a drop in the average body mass index (a number calculated using weight and height) in every grade.
This year, the rest of North Carolina is sweating alongside Richfield, thanks to a new state board of education policy requiring 30 minutes of daily physical activity for students in kindergarten through 8th grade.
The workout doesn’t have to consist of structured activity taught by a physical education teacher, though it can. In schools that don’t have daily PE classes, that means classroom teachers are rolling up their sleeves and pushing aside desks so kids can do jumping jacks or dance around the room.
Kymm Ballard, a PE consultant for North Carolina’s department of public instruction, says skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity led the state board to adopt the policy. But Ballard also expects another benefit: “Research has linked kids who are up and active to [higher achievement] in reading and math.”
Nearly all states require schools to provide some physical education or activity, but only a dozen specify how much or how often students should exercise. As a result, health advocates complain that physical activity gets squeezed as schools cram in extra reading and math to meet test goals. Another problem: Students get only 16 minutes of actual activity in an average high school gym class, according to a 2006 study by a Cornell University professor.
Not everyone has welcomed North Carolina’s policy, though. Some educators and even a few parents fear the requirement will take valuable classroom time away from academics when the stakes are higher than ever.
Last year, growing awareness of childhood obesity (17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight) led nearly 40 state legislatures to consider new requirements for physical activity or PE in schools. About half of those enacted legislation or passed resolutions.
The measures range from recognizing National Physical Education and Sports Week (in Pennsylvania) or establishing a PE task force (Arizona and Delaware) to requiring a minimum duration of physical activity (Oklahoma).
To that end, the department of public instruction has created a series of “energizers”—classroom activities that combine math, reading, science, and social studies with exercise. Students may be asked to solve a math problem and do the number of jumping jacks equal to the answer. Or they might have to create a sentence describing an activity (“Jog in place as if a bear is chasing you.”) that they then perform.
Rebecca Carter, a 4th grade teacher at Richfield, has a few of her own: During spelling lessons, students squat for vowels and stand up straight for consonants. In math, they estimate distances and then use pedometers to check their guesses. The kids have gotten so hooked, Carter says, that if she ever forgets to lead them through their exercises, they eagerly remind her.
And while it’s still too early for hard data, Lineberry is certain the workouts are paying off. In addition to a trimmer student body, he’s noticed improvements in kids’ behavior and focus that he hopes to see reflected in test scores. “North Carolina is ahead of the curve on this,” Lineberry says. “It’s the right thing to do for kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Aerobic Instruction