Solution: Communities, rec departments and independent youth sports leagues need to create or retain broad-based, participatory teams even as they form high-powered squads for gifted athletes. Children consistently tell adults that they don't want to hang up their cleats, skates or sneakers simply because they aren't good enough for elite teams. "Kids as young as eight or nine are telling us that they don't want to compete at a higher level," says pediatrician Robinson, "but they get very excited about having a soccer program that wouldn't be as high-powered."
It would also be helpful if programs leaned toward individual sports such as running and swimming, in which kids can compete against their own best times rather than for spots on elite teams.
The challenge seems nearly insurmountable, yet every day people swim against the surging wave of obesity. In the fall of 1980 Saccone, then 37, walked into his first fifth-grade classroom at Meridian Elementary in El Cajon, which is near San Diego. In a strange and vaguely intimidating turn near the middle of his life, Saccone had moved west from Connecticut and undertaken a new career. He was responsible not only for teaching a room of more than 30 10-year-olds but also for giving them a daily dose of unspecified physical education. "By state law I had to teach P.E.," Saccone says. "They told me the minimum was 20 minutes a day. I was naive. I believed I was supposed to do what I was told. Little did I know that virtually no P.E. was being given by other teachers."
Like many other Americans caught up in the waffle-soled frenzy of the early '80s, Saccone was a runner. So he thought, Maybe I'll run with the kids a bit, to get me through a few weeks, and then I'll think of something else. He started on that sunny fall day and never stopped. Every morning, before doing anything else in school, Saccone and his students ran the one-third-mile perimeter of the school grounds for 50 minutes. His first class named the activity It's Funner to Be a Runner, and the title stuck.
"Kids in my class who had never had any success with sports--kids who were uncoordinated, kids who were heavy, kids who were little--found that they could put one foot in front of the other," says Saccone. "And boy, you talk about health. You could tell which kids were in my class." After the hour outside every morning, the children went inside and wrote in a journal. It was usually about running, but it was still writing. They kept lap charts and incorporated them into their math lessons.
"You'd be amazed at how far the kids came along every year," says Saccone. "Sure, I was a runner myself, but anybody could get the kids running, or even just walking."
For Crystal Gorwitz, 47, a middle school physical-education teacher in Hortonville, Wis., the goal was to expose students to a broad range of new exercise options. In 2001 she joined with her district's high school P.E. teacher, Marcia Schmidt, and their elementary school counterpart, Cheryl Richardson, to request a $250,000 federal grant to revamp the district's P.E. program. (They would receive $233,000.) "We're dedicated teachers," says Gorwitz. "We wanted to change what we do, and we didn't have any money [from the district]. So we typed out a 25-page single-spaced application on our laptops and won the grant."
Gorwitz wrote an innovative curriculum that included not only traditional units in football, soccer and softball but also units in mountain biking, backpacking, in-line skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Students wear pedometers every day and heart-rate monitors once a week. "Kids won't go out and play without a push," says Gorwitz. "We tried to give them more options."
Last winter one of her fifth-graders asked his parents to give him snowshoes for Christmas. It was the type of small victory that warms an educator's heart. In the high school Schmidt has had success with an aerobics program for girls that has been copied elsewhere, sometimes including dance. ("I've yet to find any physical activity that is as motivating for girls as dance is," says Robinson.)
Phys-ed classes at Hortonville Middle School meet for 45 minutes every other day. Gorwitz wishes it were more often, but she and her colleagues are pushing on with alternative plans. They wrote another grant request, this one for $900,000, which was denied. "If we had gotten that," Gorwitz says, "we would have built a fitness center in the school, with treadmills and weights."