The U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services released their joint 2005 dietary guidelines last week, urging Americans to better monitor their food consumption and raise their levels of physical activity to maintain healthier lifestyles and prevent chronic diseases.
The new recommendations echo the arguments that physical education advocates have been making for a long time, said George Graham, a professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and a former president of the Reston, Va.-based National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
In response to the rise in obesity and obesity-related diseases in the United States, Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman said that “the new guidelines highlight the principle that Americans should keep their weight within healthful limits and engage in ample physical activity,” according to a USDA transcript of a Jan. 11 press conference to release the guidelines.
The sixth edition of the guidelines, which are released every five years, pays particular attention to physical activity. It describes “ample physical activity” for children as at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, if not all, days. Adults are advised to engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily in order to prevent disease, and between 60 and 90 minutes per day to maintain healthy weight.
The NASPE recommends 150 minutes of physical education per week in elementary schools. For secondary schools, the organization recommends 220 minutes of weekly physical education.
But according to Mr. Graham, only about 8 percent of elementary schools and 7 percent of secondary schools currently meet the NASPE standards.
In addition, data compiled by the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1991 to 2003 indicate that 28 percent of American students attended a physical education class daily in 2003, down from 42 percent in 1991.
Dolly Lambdin, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the current president of the NASPE, expressed hope that the new guidelines would encourage more schools to upgrade their physical education programs.
“Children need to learn why physical activity is important, not simply what to do,” she said.
Qualified physical educators must teach recreation classes, she added, so that students can learn a range of skills and choose which best meet their needs and interests for the rest of their lives.
The new guidelines are “exciting” for physical educators, Ms. Lambdin said, because they emphasize, for the first time, the importance of physical activity, in addition to nutrition, for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The new dietary guidelines released last week reinforce federal efforts already under way to encourage healthier eating and increased exercise.
Under the Local Wellness Policy of the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act of 2004, all schools receiving federal funds for school lunch and breakfast programs are required to “establish a local school wellness policy … that, at a minimum, includes goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other school-based activities that are designed to promote student wellness.”
The law requires that those policies be in place by the beginning of the 2006-07 school year.
As it is, schools that participate in federal meals programs are already required to follow the federal dietary guidelines for the meals they serve students.
The 2005 guidelines recommend that children have diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains, and at least one-half of those grains should be whole. Children ages 2 through 8 should consume two cups of low-fat or nonfat milk daily, and youngsters older than 9 should have three cups.
Since 2000, schools have used the previous guidelines to design menus and nutrition programs.
As of 2001, 82 percent of elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools were meeting those dietary guidelines, said Christine Bushway, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that has long encouraged school district meals programs to follow the federal government’s nutritional recommendations.
Changing over to the new guidelines in schools will take time, she said. But based on the data she has seen, “a lot of people are doing it already.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Federal Dietary Guidelines Encourage Physical Activity