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?FREE PLAY Another CDC survey, published in 2003, found that 22.6% of children ages nine to 13 do not engage in any "free-time physical activity." Even when children report that they have been active, Gortmaker wonders how active. "We had kids fill out diaries and also wear accelerometers [to measure movement]," he says. "What happens is that a kid reports that he was playing basketball, yet the accelerometer shows very little activity. Well, he was probably standing around on a basketball court, talking with his friends."
Given kids' ready access to technology (and the harried lives of their parents), it's highly unlikely that they will, of their own accord, return to afternoons filled with free play. "Face it," says Dietz, "video games are more exciting and more stimulating than running around the neighborhood."
Solution: Parents must push their children out the door, and communities must encourage--and fund--the creation of before- and after-school programs similar to Paw Pals. We can't expect overburdened schools to solve all of the nation's child health problems. It's encouraging news that the health-club industry has begun courting young members.
?PHYSICAL-EDUCATION CLASSES Once a staple of school life, daily gym class is becoming obsolete. A CDC survey released in mid-September verified widely held suspicions that daily gym class participation among high school students has not increased significantly since it fell dramatically from 41.6% in 1991 to 25.4% in '95. By 2003 the figure had risen only to 28.4%. Just one state, Illinois, has mandatory daily phys ed for all students in grades K-12.
What has robbed children of their gym time? The culprit most often identified by teachers and school administrators is an emphasis on improving standardized-test scores--even more so since the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind program in January 2002. The program challenged schools to "achieve academic proficiency" largely by raising scores in the math and reading tests. "P.E. was always a very low priority for schools throughout my teaching career," says Peter Saccone, who taught fifth grade in El Cajon, Calif., for 23 years before retiring in June '03. "At the elementary level I found it was basically discouraged. They wanted test scores. Period." Time that might have been given to physical education, teachers say, has in many cases been shifted to test preparation.
What's more, too few phys-ed programs have made the transition from old school forms of exercise to new-age. Traditional team sports such as football and basketball don't appeal to all students and, more significantly, don't teach fitness-building skills that students can readily carry into adulthood. "Face it," says VanHeest, "to play football you need 10 friends."
Solution: Legislation mandating minimum phys-ed requirements for public schools, and curriculums created by innovative professionals who make the best of the time they are given (box, page 82). Sallis says, "There is no excuse for P.E. malpractice." Other studies, and vast anecdotal evidence, suggest that children who exercise regularly do better in the classroom.
There is no government-mandated national minimum for phys-ed activity or performance--except the old President's Physical Fitness Program, which tests students in, for example, the mile run, push-ups, sit-ups and sit-and-reach. Says Russell Pate, professor of exercise science at South Carolina, "We have to think in terms of policies at the community and full-population level."
?YOUTH SPORTS PROGRAMS For at least the last two decades, a child's first exposure to sports participation has been through organized leagues for baseball, basketball, football, hockey and, in recent years, soccer, rather than neighborhood games that once dominated the landscape. However, these leagues seldom provide adequate exercise for players. Driving around northern Connecticut and watching youth soccer practices, UConn's VanHeest has seen children standing in line, waiting to kick a ball, only to return to the end of the line, where they wait several minutes for another kick. "At the end of an hour," says VanHeest, "the kid has been active for 15 or 20 minutes at most."
Kids who stay involved in sports for several years find themselves climbing a steep pyramid. While some communities, primarily in affluent suburbs, operate extensive recreational or "house" programs for all children willing to pay an entry fee, far more programs are geared toward building competitive travel teams through tryouts that cut less talented players. It is the American way, and it often leaves those youths most in need of exercise with few or no organized options, especially in low-income communities. "Nobody is worried about the quarterback, the shortstop, the soccer star," says Jim Pivarnik, professor of kinesiology at Michigan State. "It's the ones who don't have the skill to play those games as they get older who will be a health burden later in life."