Just how out of shape are they? One study comparing national fitness test scores of 6- to 14-year-olds from 1980 to 1994 found today's children have significantly less endurance than their counterparts 15 years ago. For example, the number of boys ages 10 to 14 who can't perform a single push-up has risen 64 percent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report these benefits of regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence: It improves strength and endurance, helps build healthy bones and muscles, helps control weight, reduces anxiety and stress, increases self-esteem, and may improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The situation gets worse as kids grow into adolescence. The landmark Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health released in 1996 found that almost half of all youths age 12 to 20 were not vigorously active on a regular basis and 14 percent were completely inactive. Girls are twice as likely to be inactive as boys.
In some ways, safety concerns have actually contributed to the problem. Fearing harm from strangers or traffic, today's parents are more likely to drive their kids everywhere rather than let them walk or ride their bikes, as previous generations did.
Many children who stay home alone after school are required by their parents to stay inside with the doors locked rather than play outdoors. It's easy to understand, then, why kids fill their hours with television and computer games. And once they're hooked, it's hard to break the habit.
Phys Ed Classes Are Woefully Inadequate
One logical place for kids to get in shape is at school. But physical education (phys ed or PE) classes have been so eroded that some elementary children get less than an hour a week. Too many budget-crunched school systems look at PE as a frill that can be cut along with music and art. Many overcrowded schools have too many students and too little space for kids to move around even when they do have PE class.
The “Shape of the Nation” report issued by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) found that only one state, Illinois, required daily PE for all students K-12. Most states mandate some PE, but, in elementary schools, for example, the times range from only 50 to 200 minutes per week. NASPE found the majority of high school students take PE during only one year from ninth through twelfth grades.
Tales from the Safety Zone
In 1987, Congress passed a resolution encouraging state and local governments and local education agencies to provide high-quality, daily physical education programs for all children in K-12. In 1996, the Surgeon General issued a report recommending the same thing. So did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the following year, in its guidelines for schools. Yet, despite these and other national recommendations, there is no federal mandate or funding targeted to physical education.
A New Approach to PE
One reason parents may not be up in arms about the lack of PE classes in school is that many of them didn't get much out of PE when they were kids. If you didn't do well on the annual fitness test, if you didn't have a knack for fielding balls or using the gymnastics equipment, PE was mostly a humiliating experience. In games such as dodge ball, where the least-skilled are eliminated first, only the athletically gifted got the playing time.
The male-oriented, competitive approach has been especially tough on girls, because many of them tend to enjoy cooperative activities more.
There's also little “physical” in too many of today's physical education classes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says kids in PE class should be active for at least 50 percent of the time. Researchers have found, however, that kids engage in vigorous activity for only a few minutes in a typical class. The rest of the time is spent standing around while the teacher takes attendance, or waiting for a turn to shoot a basket or hit a ball.
PE class in the majority of today's schools is taught the same as it was in the 1950s. Fortunately, PE reformers have created new programs that are being tried in a few innovative schools. The emphasis is not on competition but on helping kids build skills and develop an interest in some activity they will enjoy doing on their own, even into adulthood.
Anything to keep the heart pumping—from doing the hula hoop to in-line skating and biking—can be found in the new-style PE class. Games are adapted to de-emphasize competition and replace it with cooperation. In one curriculum, for example, a kickball game requires the whole team to run the bases in order to score. Instead of running races, kids run at their own pace while hooked to heart rate monitors so they can see the fitness progress they are making.
How to Get More PE for Your Kids
Your school can put more focus on fitness if you and other parents make it clear this is a priority. Find out how much time children spend in PE each week. Just as you get academic test scores, ask to receive annual fitness scores. Find out how many kids are in a class and how much time is actually spent in vigorous activities. Find out if all kids are playing all the time in team sports. Ask whether the teachers in charge of PE classes are actually PE specialists or have received adequate training.
Armed with this information, go to your parent-teacher association to discuss ways your school can improve its program. If funding is an issue, you may have to elevate the discussion to the district level.