When I was a kid, my parents had trouble getting me to come inside and sit down. Today, to hear health experts tell it, parents have trouble getting kids to move. And that inactivity may be reflected in growing rates of childhood obesity.
A new report puts part of the blame on schools -- especially kindergarten and first grade programs -- for failing to provide adequate physical education time. The report from the nonprofit National Institute for Health Care Management Research and Educational Foundation concludes that slight increases in the amount of PE kids get in school can reduce the percentage of children classified as overweight and "at-risk overweight."
The data in "Obesity in Young Children: Impact and Intervention" come from an ongoing U.S. Department of Education study of 11,192 children in 1,000 schools nationwide; the children entered kindergarten in the 1998-1999 school year. The foundation, which receives funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other groups, hired the Rand Corp. to mine the study's data; results also appear in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends daily PE for all students grades K through 12. Only 16 percent of kindergarten programs in the United States meet that standard, researchers found. Kindergartners spend on average 57 minutes per week in PE classes and, for much of that time, they are not actually exercising, said the report; 59 percent of programs have PE once or twice a week. Thirteen percent provide PE less than once per week.
Small schools and those with high percentages of low-income or minority students are more likely than others to have no PE in kindergarten, the study found. Foundation President Nancy Chockley said those children often need the exercise most because security concerns in their home neighborhoods prevent them from having as many outdoor exercise options as other children have.
A one-hour increase in PE per week led to a 0.31 point drop in body mass index -- a common measure of weight relative to height -- among overweight and at-risk girls in first grade, according to the brief.
Overweight girls, the researchers found, are more likely than normal-weight girls to have anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem and anger, as reported by the girls' parents and teachers. The research did not show similar correlation among boys. Girls who entered kindergarten with emotional problems tended to gain weight, but girls who were overweight when they started school did not necessarily develop the emotional issues.
Expanding physical education in kindergarten to at least five hours per week could reduce the percentage of girls classified as overweight from 9.8 percent to 5.6 percent, projects the study brief. "And it doesn't have to be PE," Chockley said. "Any regular exercise will do."
The research made no recommendations for the type of exercise young children should get. "The most important thing is that they enjoy it," Chockley said. Asked how she would respond to a school administrator who frets that test scores are more important than PE, Chockley replied that obesity "is the number one threat to our children today, and schools must play a role" in addressing it.
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-- John Briley