Feature Archive

Whatever Happened to Gym Class?

Fat Chance

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Feature

July 2, 2001 -- Like millions of Americans, Ernie Prado and Brittany Keele work out as much as possible to stay in shape. They do so at a high-tech fitness facility that allows them to race stationary bicycles on virtual courses against computer-generated opponents, and keep track of their fitness levels over time using handheld devices.

Prado and Keele don't pay hundreds of dollars each month for membership in this state-of-the-art health center. They pay nothing at all, because the 14-year-old 8th graders are students at West Middle School in Downey, Calif.

The school's Cyberaerobic Center is the brainchild of physical education teacher Dan Latham, who 10 years ago turned a little-used 2,000-foot athletics storage building into an aerobics facility. He has been incorporating computers into the mix ever since, and the center now has 55 fitness machines, six with the "video game" component.

"We needed a way to hook [the students]," Latham tells WebMD. "We were losing them to video games, so I decided to take their world and our world and come up with a happy medium. The kids like it because they can pick different [virtual] courses to ride on with the bikes and different courses to run on with the treadmills. But they have to be active in order for the machines to work."

All 1,200 students at the middle school attend PE classes at the center for at least three weeks during the school year, and they also have access for two hours after school, four days a week. Latham is now trying to start similar aerobics facilities at two Downey high schools, both financed exclusively, like the West Middle School center, through fund-raising events and private contributions.

"It is better than being outside, because there is air conditioning," says Prado, whose goal is to build up his shoulders for football next season. "I live in an apartment building, and the only thing I can do there is ride my bike in a little circle in this tiny parking lot."

"For a lot of kids, this is their extracurricular activity," says Keele, who plays ice hockey. "They can either go home and play video games and get no exercise at all, or they can go to the cyberaerobics lab with their friends and play games and work out."

PE Under Siege

All over the country, teachers like Latham are introducing innovations which are virtually reinventing physical education, while many school administrators and public officials have all but declared war on PE. Fitness classes are disappearing from the nation's public schools at an alarming rate, done in by ever-tightening budgets and time constraints.

Only about half of students in grades K-12 have physical education classes every day, and only 29% of high school students do. And one in four kids have no PE during their school day at all, according to figures from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), the nation's largest professional organization for physical education teachers. In a report released last year, NASPE found that the vast majority of high school students have physical education for only one year between 9th and 12th grades.

"There are just so many more academic demands on high school students than there used to be," NASPE executive director Judy Young, PhD, tells WebMD. "Many kids are trying to get in computer science, extra math, foreign language classes, any number of things, and there are still only six hours in a school day."

Young says it is no accident that kids in the U.S. are getting fatter as physical education classes are being cut. The CDC has declared obesity an epidemic among children, and obesity-related diseases once seen almost exclusively in adults, like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, are increasingly being diagnosed in adolescents.

Last fall, the Atlanta School Board did away with physical education requirements for its schools in order to implement state-mandated academic reforms. A school-board member was quoted as saying the action was taken because kids in school need to be doing more serious things than playing.

"That is ridiculous to me, but, unfortunately there are a lot of people sitting on school boards who just don't get it," says Anne Flannery of the physical education advocacy group P.E.4Life. "These days, anything that isn't tested isn't valued, and schools are feeling the pressure to do away with programs that can't be measured on a standardized test. But there is a growing body of research that shows physical exercise to be sort of a Miracle-Gro for the brain. Movement fosters brain development and growth, and physical activity prepares children to learn."

Ground Zero

In the war against physical education in schools, Illinois is the main battleground. It is the only state that requires daily physical education for all grades, but a state law passed in 1995 allows schools to seek waivers exempting them from the requirement. Such waivers have been way too easy to get, says Mark Peysakhovich, of the American Heart Association. More than 20% of the state's school districts have requested and received them.

"The legislation was passed in a move to return control to local districts, but it is being seen as a way to eliminate costly programs like physical education," says Peysakhovich. "We don't think the administrators who are requesting these waivers are bad people. Most of them are doing this because they are faced with very tough choices."

One of the main reasons physical education is perceived as expendable, Peysakhovich says, is that most adults have few positive memories of their own PE experience. It is a sentiment expressed by just about everyone interviewed for this story.

"In some ways, PE teachers did this to themselves," he says. "In the past, most gym teachers were there to coach the football or basketball team, and they placed little emphasis on PE classes. We all remember classes where we stood around for 15 minutes to shoot a basket, while the teacher sat and read a newspaper."

Award-winning physical education teacher John Williams, of North Carolina's Ayden Elementary School, has heard the criticisms and acknowledges some teachers still fit the cliché. But, he says, most PE teachers take their jobs very seriously and have incorporated wellness programs into their classes to teach children skills that will help them stay fit for life.

The 25-year teaching veteran has gone one step further and includes math, geography, and social studies in his classes through games the children play.

"These days PE teachers are expendable, and they know it," he says. "That is why I believe it is best to learn how to integrate curriculums and work the whole child."

While some of those interviewed expressed pessimism about the future of school-based physical education, others say administrators and public officials are beginning to recognize its value. Late last year Congress passed the Physical Education for Progress Act (PEP), which authorizes up to $400 million in grants over the next five years to expand and improve PE programs for public schools.

Young sees this as evidence that the pendulum is beginning to swing back toward a more balanced view of a school's role in educating the mind and keeping the body healthy.

"If kids aren't healthy and fit, we are going to have a diminished return on that academic investment," she says. "We are asking kids to sit in classes for six hours a day, and we wonder why they misbehave. I can't keep adults sitting still in a meeting for an hour and a half without giving them a break."

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