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No sweat: Missouri's flabby phys ed requirement not strong enough to combat obesity, say experts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2010 - In response to rising obesity among Missouri children, several groups appealed to the Legislature last year to impose tougher physical education standards on schools.

The groups got only part of what they wanted. They had pushed to require a minimum of 150 minutes of supervised exercise a week, depending on grade level. Instead, lawmakers enacted a bill that allows schools to count recess toward the 150-minute rule. The rule takes effect this fall.

Jace Smith, director of state advocacy for the Missouri Heart Association, expressed disappointment.

"The American Heart Association will continue to ask the Missouri Legislature to pass a law that guarantees Missouri kids a minimum of 150 minutes per week of quality physical education for elementary grades and 225 minutes per week for middle school grades," he says.

Over the past 10 years, Smith argues, Missouri schools have decreased the time for physical education and increased the time students sit in the classroom.

He points to research suggesting that the childhood obesity is the result of a decline in regular physical activity and a diet high in empty and fat-laden calories.

"Experts agree that increasing physical activity is the most important component of any program to combat childhood obesity," he says.

Even so, Smith and other proponents feel lucky that the legislation wasn't watered down even more. At one point in the current legislative session, some legislators wanted to count band practice as a way to meet the state's phys education requirements this fall. That provision, introduced by Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, got Senate support but was rejected by the House.

It's not just the weight that's an issue, says Maggie Menefee, executive director of Healthy Youth Partnership in St. Louis. The state needs tougher standards because overweight children are more at risk of developing chronic illnesses, such as diabetes.

About 20 percent of children in Missouri are classified as obese. Tougher physical education standards would fit in with the partnership's obesity prevention initiatives. The organization seeks to coordinate community resources for improving health among students and families, stressing good diet and exercise.

Undoubtedly, Menefee wished all school districts were as conscientious as Ferguson-Florissant. The district has set a high standard by shifting from a focus on sports-related benefits to fitness-related benefits, says Laura Beckmann, the district's physical education, health and wellness curriculum coordinator. Her work has made Beckmann a speaker in demand at many national and global conferences on physical education.

Children in the Ferguson Florissant District not only take part in moderate to vigorous physical activity but learn about controlling stress and other health issues. Heart rate monitors are used frequently in the district's programs.

"Students have to have so many heart rate monitor days per semester," Beckmann says. "It's part of their grade. It's all data driven so that we can show students their personal growth based on their involvement in these activities and how this affects their bodies."

She says the district has the only web-based fitness program in the nation that's "aligned to attendance, discipline and academic achievement."

The data-driven program gives the district the ability to review students' health trends at various ages, study the relationship between health and academic achievement, and develop interventions to improve outcomes, Beckmann says.

Some observers say de-emphasis on physical education in many districts coincided with decisions to spend more time preparing for the MAP test. If that is true, it may be a misguided policy. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Adolescent and School Health released a report saying there was no proof that extra physical activity would detract from academic performance.

Amy A. Eyler, an associate research professor at Washington University's Prevention Research Center, says districts across the nation have a long way to go to beef up school-based exercise programs.

Before Missouri enacted its weakened 150-minute physical education rule last year, Eyler studied physical education legislation in all 50 states. She found that of hundreds of bills introduced nationwide between 2001 and 2007, virtually none offered what she says are evidence-based components for a good physical education program. The components include a certain number of minutes of actual physical activity, teachers certified to run physical education programs and adequate facilities and equipment.

Some groups are looking toward next year's legislative session and will continue to press state lawmakers to adopt stricter physical education standards.

"I was happy that we made the increase in activity although I was not totally happy with the fact that it wasn't physical education," says Ferguson Florissant's Beckmann. "We're teaching them chronic disease prevention, healthy lifestyle behavior and nutrition, but these concepts are not being delivered at recess. We hope the bill (for 150 minutes of physical education) is reintroduced."

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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