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Heisman Trophy Winner Sings Praises of Quality Phys. Ed.

In a recent Education Week Commentary, Herschel Walker, the winner of the 1982 Heisman Trophy, described physical education as his "saving grace" while growing up.

Walker, who would go on to have a 12-year career in the National Football League, making two Pro Bowl appearances, said physical activity as a youth was his "refuge," as it gave him a "healthy way to channel my frustration and insecurities." He added: 

Physical education gave me so much: focus, purpose, hope. Those elements helped turn that scared little boy into an accomplished athlete, a valedictorian, and the successful businessman I am today.

Without physical education, I wouldn't have learned many of the skills that improved my life both on and off the football field. These skills remain with me, fueling my advocacy for all children to reap the same benefits from physical education that I did.

P.E. can help children who face many different challenges in and out of school. It can benefit kids of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.

Walker proceeded to decry how many schools across the United States are falling short of providing the recommended amount of physical education. As my colleague Marva Hinton recently noted on the Time and Learning blog, Oregon and the District of Columbia are the only two states to require the recommended amount of weekly physical education time at the elementary (150 minutes) and middle school levels (225 minutes). (For the purposes of the report, D.C. was considered a state.) According to the latest Shape of the Nation report, only 37 percent of states require elementary school students to spend a specific amount of time in phys. ed. class, while just 29 percent of states do the same for middle and high school students.

Over the past few years, a number of studies have suggested a positive link between physical activity and academic performance, perhaps underscoring the risk of schools not providing an adequate amount of physical education. Last January, for instance, a study published in the journal Urban Education found participation in P.E. to possibly have a beneficial effect on the academic performance of African-American girls.

"Students' effort, attention, and persistence during the initiation and execution of tasks in physical education could facilitate academic learning," the authors concluded. "Learning experience, self-regulation, and values obtained through physical education could act as a necessity to enhance learning in other academic subjects."

That's hardly the only study to draw such a connection in recent years. In 2014, a study found Kansas elementary and middle school students who met certain physical-fitness benchmarks to be considerably more likely to exceed reading and math performance standards. A 2013 study published in the open-access journal PLOS One found higher levels of aerobic fitness could bolster a child's ability to learn and remember information. A 2012 study from researchers at Michigan State University found middle school students in prime physical shape outperformed their overweight and obese peers both on tests and grades.

Between the academic benefits and impact on students' health—a 2013 study in the Journal of Health Economics found increasing the amount of physical education time for 5th graders appeared to reduce the likelihood of childhood obesity—there's no understating the importance of physical education in schools. Without strict state and federal mandates, however, schools are free to allocate P.E. time however they see fit. 

That's why Walker clamored for Congress to get involved: 

This is the year for Congress to seize the moment to recognize the important, positive impacts physical education has on health and academic performance. Congress should fully fund and embrace the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program to support vital programs like P.E.

This funding is crucial for making P.E. possible in more communities across the nation, especially because, according to one survey, the average physical education program receives only $764 per year from the school budget.

How much of an impact Walker's P.E. advocacy has at a federal and/or state level remains to be seen. Phys. ed. advocates certainly can't mind having a former Heisman Trophy winner in their corner, though.


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