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Physical Education Requirements Questioned for Student-Athletes

By guest blogger Gina Cairney

Studies suggest that physical education curricula can provide health benefits to students, and the Institute of Medicine even recommends schools provide at least 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during school time, but should all students be required to take gym class?

That's the question being raised in New Mexico, where some parents are questioning the state's PE mandate, even for student-athletes already involved with sports.

New Mexico requires its high school students to take one year of PE to graduate, according to the Albuquerque Journal, and, unlike many other states, doesn't allow for waivers or exemptions for extracurricular activities like school sports.

Donnis Estrada, whose daughter plays on the La Cueva (Albuquerque) high school basketball team, told the Albuquerque Journal that student-athletes should be exempt because they're athletic and, "being on a team sport you learn a lot about teamwork."

You learn "how to be healthy and not be a slug and sit around eating bon bons all day," she said.

But not everyone agrees.

Rosanne Vega, whose daughter also plays basketball at La Cueva, told the paper student-athletes shouldn't be exempt from PE, because the two programs are different.

Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the state public education department, told the Albuquerque Journal that PE and athletics programs have separate goals, and the goal of PE is to "expose students to a variety of sports and activities."

If a student-athlete only participates in one sport, they're not being exposed to a variety of other physical activities like aquatics, dance, or noncompetitive activities, he said.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education, based in Reston, Va., took a similar position in a statement, suggesting that policies allowing exemptions are not good because playing one sport doesn't expose students to other activities or standards that may be covered in PE.

New Mexico is one of 17 states that doesn't allow schools to substitute other activities for the required course, according to NASPE's 2012 Shape of the Nation report.

The Land of Enchantment isn't the only state to debate the issue. New Jersey sought to tackle that question last year, after the Summit board of education put off the question in 2009, according to the news site NJ.com.

The administration recommended varsity and junior varsity athletes be allowed to miss one PE class per week during the season, but no solution was found by the end of the board's meeting in October.

In Omaha, Neb., student-athletes were also taking advantage of a pilot program that allowed them to opt-out of PE.

Students particpating in school sports may be getting some exercise, but the NASPE points out some differences between physical education and physical activity.

Physical education, according to the organization's website, provides learning opportunities, appropriate instructions in a safe environment, and meaningful and challenging content related to sustained healthy lifestyles. So while it provides opportunity for physical activity, the goal of PE is to teach skills and knowledge necessary to maintain an active lifestyle.

Physical activity is about the body's movement either through recreational, fitness and sports activities or through daily activities like walking and taking the stairs, which can have health benefits in curbing weight gain if the exertion level is high enough to increase a person's heart rate.

The two are similar in providing health benefits to children, but the NASPE says they shouldn't be used interchangeably when discussing programs that contribute to the development of healthy, active children.

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