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Whatever Happened to Gym Class?.

Fat Chance

PE Under Siege continued...

"There are just so many more academic demands on high school students than there used to be," NASPE executive director Judy Young, PhD, tells WebMD. "Many kids are trying to get in computer science, extra math, foreign language classes, any number of things, and there are still only six hours in a school day."

Young says it is no accident that kids in the U.S. are getting fatter as physical education classes are being cut. The CDC has declared obesity an epidemic among children, and obesity-related diseases once seen almost exclusively in adults, like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, are increasingly being diagnosed in adolescents.

Last fall, the Atlanta School Board did away with physical education requirements for its schools in order to implement state-mandated academic reforms. A school-board member was quoted as saying the action was taken because kids in school need to be doing more serious things than playing.

"That is ridiculous to me, but, unfortunately there are a lot of people sitting on school boards who just don't get it," says Anne Flannery of the physical education advocacy group P.E.4Life. "These days, anything that isn't tested isn't valued, and schools are feeling the pressure to do away with programs that can't be measured on a standardized test. But there is a growing body of research that shows physical exercise to be sort of a Miracle-Gro for the brain. Movement fosters brain development and growth, and physical activity prepares children to learn."

Ground Zero

In the war against physical education in schools, Illinois is the main battleground. It is the only state that requires daily physical education for all grades, but a state law passed in 1995 allows schools to seek waivers exempting them from the requirement. Such waivers have been way too easy to get, says Mark Peysakhovich, of the American Heart Association. More than 20% of the state's school districts have requested and received them.

"The legislation was passed in a move to return control to local districts, but it is being seen as a way to eliminate costly programs like physical education," says Peysakhovich. "We don't think the administrators who are requesting these waivers are bad people. Most of them are doing this because they are faced with very tough choices."

One of the main reasons physical education is perceived as expendable, Peysakhovich says, is that most adults have few positive memories of their own PE experience. It is a sentiment expressed by just about everyone interviewed for this story.

"In some ways, PE teachers did this to themselves," he says. "In the past, most gym teachers were there to coach the football or basketball team, and they placed little emphasis on PE classes. We all remember classes where we stood around for 15 minutes to shoot a basket, while the teacher sat and read a newspaper."

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