In Some PE Classes, Counting Small Steps To Achieve Fitness

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thirty students file into the gym of Montgomery County's largest elementary school. Each grabs a pedometer, and, to the strains of "Cotton-Eye Joe," starts to jump and stretch, twist and balance, roll and crab walk.

For almost an hour, teacher Cindy Lins keeps them moving. Then the pedometers are checked, and the energy output assessed. Fourteen students have gone as far as a half-mile. Many are breathing harder than when they came in, rating a "moderate."

The fitness class at Spark M. Matsunaga Elementary School in Germantown is an innovation, although it might not look like it.

As schools are thwarted by mandates and lack of money in their efforts to offer more physical education, they are trying to offer better physical education. At Matsunaga, the focus is on fitness, not competitive sports. Students are taught that aerobic activity helps physically and mentally. "It helps get rid of our excess energy and makes it easier to focus in class," said Jonathon Bateky, 11.

The class takes place once a week, and health experts say that explains a key problem with school physical education programs -- not enough time is spent in them to do any real good.

"To truly have an impact in skill development, you need a minimum of three times a week," Lins said.

The most important strategy for combating obesity is increasing physical activity, according to a Government Accountability Office report. And health experts say it's time for schools to play a bigger role.

About 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-two percent do not require students to take any phys-ed class.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that schools provide at least 150 minutes of exercise per five-day school week at the elementary school level and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school students. The reality: Public elementary schools nationwide offer 85 minutes a week for first-graders and 98 minutes a week for sixth-graders, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

A few lawmakers want physical education requirements mandated under No Child Left Behind, the very law some educators blame for cutbacks in structured gym classes. As schools increased instructional time for core classes, the role of physical education diminished.

But the reauthorization of the No Child law appears stalled. In Maryland, a bill has been introduced mandating 90 minutes of physical education and 60 minutes of other physical activity each week in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Virginia's legislature approved a bill recommending the same.

"Forty minutes a day, five days a week can make a big difference in the health of children," said Daniel W. Jones, president of the American Heart Association. "That can be accomplished in the school setting."

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