Physical Education, for Life

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

As the kids file back into school, let's hope they aren't trying to squeeze through the door two at a time: With the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that 16 percent of the U.S. population aged 6 to 19 is overweight and that another 15 percent are at risk of becoming so, we'd need bigger doors.

But there's hope. A physical education program in Naperville, Ill., is inspiring other U.S. school districts with the promise of drawing even the most exercise-averse students into a regular fitness program -- and paying off with fitter kids, happier students and (really) better academic performance. The specific program hasn't been adopted in the Washington area yet, but it's worth noting as our students change into their gym shorts and T-shirts.

Phil Lawler launched his revolution in the 1990s as physical education coordinator of Naperville schools.

The program relies on a few tenets: First, students should attend PE every school day from grades 6 through 12. Second, exit the intimidating gym coach of yore who focused on team sports and shunned the athletically inept. Then, establish baseline fitness levels for each student, and show each child how to improve, compared to his or her baseline, not to that of the jocks. The goal is to get students into the "healthy zones" for flexibility, cardio endurance, body mass index and muscular strength and endurance, based on standards established decades ago at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.

Next, give kids a range of activity options -- from dance and swimming to rock climbing and flag football -- and embrace technology, like heart rate monitors, video screens on treadmills and pedometers.

"The old [team-sport-focused] PE was great, except that kids who weren't interested in sports would say, 'What am I doing here?' " said Lawler, who is now academy director at PE4Life, a Kansas City-based advocacy group that promotes daily PE in schools.) "With individual [activities], you don't have to be the fastest kid in the class."

The transformation in Naperville, Lawler said, drew some initial resistance. But in 2001 parents rated Lawler's PE program number one among all academic subjects at Madison Junior High School. More significant is this: In 2002-2003, only 3 percent of Naperville high school freshman were overweight.

Other PE4Life sites are in Grundy Center, Iowa, and Titusville, Pa.

As for improved academic performance, consider this: Naperville students in 1999 scored in the top 10 percent in the world on standardized math and science tests (comparing eighth graders in 38 countries), Lawler said. He also cited a California Department of Education study from 2002 that showed students who were more fit tested better in reading and, particularly, math, than did less-fit students. The study did not prove cause and effect between exercise and test scores (i.e., the fit kids might have simply been higher achievers overall) but, Lawler said, the data are compelling nonetheless.

But the physical results alone are sufficient justification, Lawler said. "Children's health is maybe the biggest concern facing the nation today. Some reports say this generation of kids will be the first ever with a lower life expectancy than their parents'." With better PE, Lawler said, this needn't be the outcome.

To replicate the Naperville program, Lawler said schools need "time, certified [PE] staff and a curriculum. If you tie [fitness] to health and wellness and academic performance, the money will be there" to grow a program.

No chat today; back next week. E-mail: .

-- John Briley

© 2005 The Washington Post Company