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U.S. schools develop a nicer version of gym class

The cavernous gymnasium at Patriot High School can be intimidating for 15-year-old Kristin Ansah. When students break out the hockey sticks before gym class, she ducks for cover.

“I don’t work out,” she said. “I don’t play sports.”

But Kristin looks forward to her physical education classes, because her teachers let her choose what she wants to play. During the first unit, she bypassed football and tennis for jump-rope games with her friends. “It reminded me of my childhood,” she said.

The program at the Prince William County school is part of a national effort to mobilize a generation that has been labeled the most sedentary in the nation’s history. It represents a major shift in physical education to reverse the trend of inertia, with gym teachers working harder to make sure that their classes don’t appeal just to the most athletic students while the rest of the kids in school-issued shorts are left sitting on the sidelines.

“The country depends on us to do something different than what we have been doing,” said Dolly Lambdin, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). “We cared too much about who is the best, who can do the most push-ups, and not nearly enough about what it means to be healthy and physically active for a lifetime.”

Out are dodgeball and other sports that use kids as targets, contests that reward students who are the strongest, and exercise doled out (or withheld) as a form of punishment: Still talking? Four more laps!

In are personal fitness plans, target heart-rate zones, and sports that play to different strengths and introduce students to activities that they can pursue across a lifetime. “Physically literate” and “lifelong movers” are buzzwords of the New PE.

Nearly one of every three U.S. children is overweight or obese, a rate that has tripled in the past three decades. Students are less likely to walk to school or play outside before dinner, and they are more likely to spend hours in front of a television or computer screen. Many advocates see physical education, with its potential to reach 56 million students, as a key way to influence behavior during and after the school day.

The D.C. public school system received a federal grant to introduce students to more “life-time physical activities,” said Heather Holaday, the health and physical education program manager for the District.

Archery is one of many sports, including rock climbing, fly fishing and yoga, that District schools are now offering as they try to up the activity level of a wider range of students. Archery — popularized in the “Hunger Games” movies — has egalitarian appeal, Holaday said.

“You could be standing next to the most athletic person in your class and have a chance to be successful,” she said.

“Bows and arrows?” asked freshman Karlos Kinney, eyebrows raised. Thirty minutes later, any grumbling was drowned out by the sound of whap! whap!, followed by cheers and “I got it in the red!”

The school district is also investing in technology, including heart monitors, that teach students how their bodies respond to exercise and give them a picture of how hard they are working. The monitors also help teachers evaluate students based on effort rather than on how fast they are moving.

School districts across the country are adopting different approaches to introducing lasting exercise habits to more students.

In Prince George’s County, high school students take “Your Personal Fitness,” a required class during which they create individual plans with activities they can pursue outside of school, such as Zumba or walking around the neighborhood.

And a Fairfax County program is outfitting students with pedometers so they can analyze how much exercise they are getting during their daily lives.
Professional associations for physical educators have spent 20 years trying to make the curriculum more accessible through academic standards and teacher training.

First lady Michelle Obama gave the effort a big boost in recent years with her campaign to get kids moving. Last year, she launched a schools-based program to increase physical activity throughout the school day with a goal of 60 minutes of exercise per day, the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An Institute of Medicine report estimates that at least half of students fall short of that amount. Walking or biking to school, recess, intramural sports, classroom breaks and physical education are all part of the push.

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