These distressing trends, the AAU study states, are the result of the "increasingly sedentary lifestyles and unbalanced nutritional habits of American youngsters.'' As Boehm notes, "Kids have lots of opportunities to do other things besides play and exercise.''
Michael Willett, program manager of the AAU study, points out that video games offer children the excitement and competition of sports without the physical exertion. He also notes that socioeconomic factors hamper many kids' fitness. Some families can afford to join health clubs, he says, but children whose families can't either don't exercise or, because of rising neighborhood crime, take risks to do so. Many children, he adds, don't even walk to school anymore because of busing.
Health experts also place a good share of the blame for overweight children on television. Nielsen Media Research reports that, on average, children between the ages of 2 and 5 currently watch 27 hours of television a week. The AAP advises parents to reduce their children's viewing by at least half.
But most experts agree that schools can do a lot more to help their students get in shape. The President's Council on Physical Fitness recommends that people do aerobic exercise that elevates their heart rate for at least 20 minutes, three or more times a week. Most schools provide their students with much less than that.
State legislatures decide how much physical education children are required to take. "Very few states have what we recommend as a minimum,'' says Judy Young, program director for NASPE. In fact, only Illinois requires daily PE in grades K-12. Many schools around the country, including most elementary schools, Young says, provide PE classes only once or twice a week.
For example, in Missouri, where Boehm teaches, schools are only required to provide two classes--or 60 minutes--of PE per child per week. "There's no way we can make a difference in kids' fitness seeing them only about an hour a week,'' she says. Although districts can opt for more, Boehm says that most--including hers--do not.
What's more, "PE is one of the first things school boards look to cut when faced with budget constraints,'' says Michael Nelson, chairman of the AAP Committee on Sports Medicine.
NASPE and the authors of the AAU study would like Congress to ensure that every child has adequate PE time by mandating daily physical education in all grades. The AAP recommends that schools offer PE at least three times a week.
But the number of hours a week allocated to PE is only part of the problem. How that time is spent is also critical. The AAP argues that schools should devote less PE time to traditional team sports, like football and baseball, because they benefit only a few talented athletes and do not fulfill the basic fitness needs of the average student. The AAU study also questions the benefits of team sports during PE.
Says Regina McGill, NASPE's 1983 Secondary Education Teacher of the Year: "Kids probably won't be playing basketball when they're 50, so we need to teach the whole area of wellness: stress release, nutrition, and exercise they can always do, like walking and biking.''
According to Boehm, the ideal PE class combines fitness, skills, and lessons in nutrition. These are all things she works into her own course. In the fall, Boehm times her students in the mile run and tests their overall fitness. Then, the students set goals for the year. During every class, they run and work on skills. While waiting their turn to practice a particular skill, they can work out at "fitness stations,'' on equipment such as mats, ropes, and pull-up bars. Boehm also talks to the students about nutrition and lifelong fitness and encourages them to play and exercise outside of PE class. In the spring, she tests her students again. "It's amazing,'' she says. "They've really improved.''
Schools, of course, should not bear all of the responsibility for children's fitness. The Melpomene Institute, a research and resource center that studies the effects of exercise on girls and women, says that parental involvement and example-setting are the critical factors influencing children's fitness.
Willett, manager of the AAU study, argues that schools and teachers need to help parents help their children. "Most parents,'' he says, "just don't have the knowledge.''
Boehm offers another reason schools need to nudge parents: "People today are very busy. I bet most parents couldn't say how active their kid is.'' The AAU, with support from Chrysler, is developing a home-fitness curriculum to help PE teachers and parents.
But it is the teacher, the AAU report argues, who is in the best position to affect children's fitness. "The desired understanding, attitudes, and behaviors,'' the report states, "can only be achieved through a consistent, well-conceived educational program under the direction of qualified, dedicated teachers.''