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Chicago's Return of Recess Could Lead to Major Student-Health Benefits

The Chicago public schools issued a guideRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader this week to help outline ways that schools can bring recess back into their schedules. Most schools in the district haven't scheduled recess since the 1970s.

As it turns out, the return of recess to Chicago may have major health benefits for students, according to a soon-to-be-presented study out of the University of Scranton.

Dr. Ronald W. Deitrick, director of the exercise-science program at the University of Scranton's Department of Exercise Science and Sport, launched a 10-week pilot walking program for a group of 12-year-olds during recess. Students walked for 25 minutes during recess, three times per week.

After 10 weeks, students who hadn't participated in the program gained an average of four pounds, while those who did take part gained only one pound, and significantly reduced their percentage of body fat.

"This was only for 10 weeks," said Deitrick in a press release. "Imagine what we could do to address the childhood-obesity problem and prevent adult obesity if this was what students nationwide did during recess. We need to revolutionize the way we think about walking."

Deitrick will be officially presenting the study at the 58th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in early June. (He was not immediately available to comment on the study.)

Let's jump back to Chicago, where only 42 percent of principals surveyed by the district said their school currently had scheduled recess time.

A provision in the contract between the district and the Chicago Teachers' Union makes it so individual schools decide whether to schedule recess during the day. In theory, each school has a committee (made up of administrators, teachers, and parents) that votes on the school's scheduling process; however, union officials say the committee process has been left in the dust recently. The newly released 34-page recess guide requires schools to set up a recess committee, which would determine each year whether to include recess in the schedule.

The guide makes mention of a 2009 study from the Journal of Pediatrics that found 15 minutes or more of daily recess improved students' classroom behavior. (As someone currently reading Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, the improved behavior finding makes sense, as exercise releases certain calming chemicals in the brain and essentially primes the brain for learning.)

The recess guide also references first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! fitness campaign and a recommendation from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity that elementary schools provide their students regular access to recess.
"Recess should be considered a vital and healthy part of a complete school day for all of our students," said Terry Mazany, Chicago's interim chief executive officer, in a press release. "We hope this plan will provide the blueprint needed to return recess to our elementary schools."

In a survey of 200 Chicago principals, 65 said they've noticed improved school climate since implementing recess, and 57 cited the benefit of physical exercise.

The district expects next school year to be a transitional one for most schools, and expects recess to return to schools on a widescale basis in the 2012-13 school year.

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