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Teach your children wellness: Schools are rethinking phys ed

Jonathan Vo, with fellow 17-year-old Eric Dang, does narrow pushups at Sterling's Park View High, where Kathy Coshinsky's students created their own exercises that can be done at home.
Jonathan Vo, with fellow 17-year-old Eric Dang, does narrow pushups at Sterling's Park View High, where Kathy Coshinsky's students created their own exercises that can be done at home. (Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Two months back, tiny Lincoln University attracted worldwide media attention when it threatened to withhold diplomas from overweight students unless they took a special fitness class.

Under its 2005 policy, which the Philadelphia area school rescinded in December after weeks of criticism from activists and the media, students with body mass indexes (BMI) over 30 were required to take a one-credit class called "Fitness for Life" in order to graduate from the historically black college. A person with a BMI of 30 is considered obese under health guidelines.

We'll get back to Lincoln. But the controversy made me curious about the role our schools are playing in our children's fitness and whether they are having any impact in the so far losing effort against the obesity epidemic.

When I went to high school in the early 1970s, phys ed was a requirement: three periods a week, if memory serves, through junior year. Team sports reigned. The athletic kids would park me on the offensive line during flag football and tell me to stay out of the way on the basketball floor. Let's not even bring up Greco-Roman wrestling.

It wasn't fun, and it surely didn't involve much exercise, except when the teachers made us run a mile or try the pommel horse. I didn't learn much about staying fit until I started working out in college.

Now it's different -- at least in theory and at least in some schools. With the adoption of new standards in the early 1990s, physical education was to be reoriented toward teaching kids the skills needed to stay fit for a lifetime.

Across the country, some schools have embraced the idea. Glenelg High in Howard County, for example, has practically turned its gym into a fitness club. "Lifetime Fitness" is now the required course at the school, where students have access to spin bikes, elliptical machines, balance balls, step aerobics, free weights and other equipment. They use heart-rate monitors and pedometers and develop individual exercise plans.

Instead of massive scrums on the football field, during any gym period, some students may play Ultimate Frisbee while others walk the track, according to Jacqueline French, facilitator of physical education for Howard County public schools.

"We've reached the kids who, typically, their parents hated P.E. [because] they weren't very successful," says Ginger Kincaid, a physical education teacher who runs the program. "Those are the kids who are getting something out of it."

Amen.

Loudoun County won a $1.4 million grant in July to undertake a similar conversion of its schools over the next three years, says Sheila Jones, the school system's supervisor of health and physical education.

So everything is on track, right? Not really. It's too soon for any good research to determine whether the new orientation has had an impact. Many schools, lacking the money and expertise to retool, have no such equipment. Others have responded to No Child Left Behind's mandate to raise student test scores by stealing time from P.E.


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