Giving PE the respect it deserves

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The legislation elevates health and physical education to “core subjects” under federal law. In essence, it helps protect PE and health classes from cuts by making them eligible for federal education funding and support. He introduced the bill with good reason.

The United States is the most obese nation on Earth. Today, about one in three American children and teens is overweight or obese. Thirty percent of elementary school kids don’t get the physical activity recommended — that is, an hour-a-day of moderate-to-vigorous movement. Almost half of them sit in front of a TV, computer, or video screen more than the two-hour daily limit advised. And just one in 10 high school students are getting enough physical activity when you look at aerobic and muscle-strengthening recommendations combined.

What it all boils down to is this: their health, and our nation’s future. We are now seeing more obese children burdened early in life with health conditions that they shouldn’t be experiencing until well into adulthood, if at all — health conditions like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, gallstones, and joint problems. What’s more, kids with weight problems may be at higher risk for depression and other health woes later in life.

The next time you go to the store, notice the number of obese and overweight children. Take a day and watch a youth sports league — like soccer or lacrosse — which have become many parents’ fall-back to PE and recess in school. Notice just how many kids are winded early in the game. Instead of experiencing the joy of movement, they’re belabored by excess weight that takes a toll physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Go ahead. Take a close, hard look.

Our children are in trouble. They’re growing up in an environment of excess food consumption wherein oversized, over-advertised, and ubiquitous junk food prevails; an environment in which demanding schedules have families eating on the run; an environment wherein sedentary pastimes reign, and outside play, daily recess, and PE classes are gone with the wind. Simply, our children are growing up in a society that works against their chances of staying physically active and maintaining a healthy diet.

Consider this: Only six states require physical education in every grade. Only three states require schools to provide the nationally recommended 150+ minutes per week of PE in elementary school. And only three states require schools to provide the nationally recommended 225+ minutes per week of PE in high school.

Ironically, we know that exercise has a very positive impact on academic performance, classroom behavior, and the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of youth. Studies prove it time and again. So why do we keep cutting PE out of our schools?

A poll by two Harvard researchers just published in the journal Health Affairs and reported on in the Los Angeles Times found that when assessing the government’s public health agenda, there is broad support for preventing obesity in children (81 percent). In fact, 89 percent of respondents agreed that children should be taught more about the health risks of obesity in schools. And the vast majority (88 percent) said they believe kids should get at least 45 minutes of physical education each day.

The good news is that we do have leaders — like Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), First Lady Michelle Obama, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — who are on the side of our nation’s children. Coinciding with the introduction of the PHYSICAL Act, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of Let's Move Active Schools, a public-private partnership designed to help schools create active environments by finding free or low-cost ways to incorporate movement before, during, and after the school day. Recognizing that our nation’s children spend roughly half their waking hours at school, this new initiative aspires to get 50,000 schools to become active schools over the next five years.

Sen. Cornyn has been promoting PE and Health for schoolchildren in Texas for many years. In fact, he’s a strong supporter of the Carol M. White Physical Education Grant Program (PEP) that helps school districts combat childhood obesity by providing funds for equipment, support and the training and education of teachers and staff.

It’s time to face the facts. Our nation’s kids are our future. If they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.

Initiatives and legislation like Let's Move Active Schools, the PHYSICAL Act, and PEP will help considerably. But if we are to truly make a difference in the lives of our children, and the future of our nation, we all must move—in our homes, in our communities, and in our schools—to change the environment in which our kids are growing up.

It’s just gym, huh? Well never before has PE been more important to our children — or to our nation. It’s the single “core subject” where we absolutely must help every child in America succeed.

Durkin is the executive vice president of Public Policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)