Physical education teachers say they have an answer to childhood obesity: More PE.
But Arizona’s emphasis on reading, writing and math standards, coupled with annual budget deficits, has not worked in physical education’s favor.
In fact, many PE teachers say they are integrating math, reading and writing into lessons that were once focused on teamwork and activities.
"Sometimes physical education and other programs are getting ripped from schools and classrooms and teachers who don’t have the training are having to do that. It’s a shame to see," said Tom Eggert, physical education teacher at Tempe’s Bustoz Elementary School.
The Associated Press reported that obesity is growing among children. About 5 percent of children were obese in 1981, but about 15 percent are today. The statistics also show that, nationwide, PE classes have diminished as kids have gotten heavier. In 1991, four in 10 high school students took daily PE classes. Today, about one-third participate.
In East Valley elementary schools, PE is usually offered twice a week for 30 to 45 minutes. Most secondary students take daily PE for at least a year.
In most school districts, officials say they are not cutting PE classes — though teachers worry as budget constraints continue to limit what districts can spend.
"We cut down from 2.5 to two times a week — that’s all they get," said Karen Derkach who teaches PE at Anasazi Elementary School in Scottsdale. "This is one area that carries over to academics. These exercises help their brains work better. Kids need time to burn off a little steam and get physically fit."
Chandler Unified School District curriculum director Susan Eissinger said in her 20 years with the district, physical education has remained important.
"There are many, many demands in the accountability structure and certainly increased dialogue about where to put our time," she said. "But I really haven’t heard discussion about ‘let’s go with less PE.’ "
The Arizona Board of Education may consider expanding a plan that would ban the sale of junk food on campuses to also ensure students are getting enough exercise, which could put this issue in the spotlight soon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also is investigating the issue.
The need for in-school exercise was underscored in the results of a recent national survey by the CDC that found that almost two-thirds — 61.5 percent — of 9- to 13-year-olds participate in no organized physical activities outside of school. More than a fifth — 22.6 percent — engage in no physical activity in their free time.
‘‘Schools are not going to be able, on their own, to reverse this obesity epidemic,’’ said Howell Wechsler, a health scientist in the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. ‘‘But they’re an important part of the puzzle.’’
The CDC, the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sports and Physical Education are among the many organizations that recommend daily PE from kindergarten through 12th grade. Physical activity offers clear short- and longterm health benefits; in addition, most health scientists believe that children who exercise regularly perform better academically.
Illinois is the only state to mandate daily PE from kindergarten through 12th grade. Minnesota recently eliminated physical education as a graduation requirement, and a new Florida law allows high school students to graduate in three years by skipping PE and some electives.
Robert Pangrazi, an Arizona State University kinesiology professor, wrote the book on the issue, and has trained a large mass of PE teachers in schools today. A model he created shifts the focus from team sports to meeting individual students’ needs and interests.
"Why are we are just training kids in school to be basketball, baseball and football players when we know at graduation about 1 percent will continue?" he asked during a recent conference sponsored by the Dairy Council of America.
The team approach, he said, makes things far worse for the very kids schools need to reach: At-risk kids who vegetate on the couch. While student athletes get rewards and attention, other students struggle as they work harder to keep up. The experience teaches them that physical workouts equal agony and embarrassment, he said.
He offered advice for making PE an effective learning tool.
"You shouldn’t force it," he said. "I can’t think of a more debilitating thing for kids. It’s our job to believe all kids have the potential to be active. I wish we would get out of this business of comparing kids."
It’s important for schools to make the time for kids to be active and learn exercises that actually help them think better, including any movement that crosses the chest — which uses both sides of the brain, he said.
"We’ve boxed these kids up," he said. "They’re not allowed to move and we wonder why they grow up into fat adults."
His wife, Deb Pangrazi, the athletic director for elementary programs at Mesa Unified School District, says under the Pangrazi model the focus on PE has been changing to become more positive, making physical education a more vital part of the curriculum.
"We teach them how to enjoy activities and how to stay healthy through being active," she said. "We make everything we present to children fun and enjoyable so that all children want to be in PE and to participate."
The key is individualization, she said, and teaching all children the same general concepts, but giving them choices on what they prefer and may keep doing later in life.
"The important thing is to keep them moving, to stimulate activity," she said. "How many adults go out and run a mile until they get sick? After a certain age kids don’t participate in team sports. That is an attitude we believe has forced people to think they were failures, so they don’t participate in activities at all. Now, individual approach helps make more of an impact on children so they become more active."
Many PE teachers make use of after-school programs to expand the time children are involved in activities. In the Apache Junction Unified School District, students are encouraged to participate in intramural sports after school.
"We feel our intra-district program allows a much larger number of students to participate," said district spokeswoman Carol Shepherd. "We have large turnouts for that. They’re all pretty much at a safe level, not competing."
But, she added, parents must be involved for such programs to work and for students to stay active.
"These children are the parent’s responsibility," she said.