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Mind and Body Deserve Equal Attention in Schools

You'd think that the rise in childhood obesity, along with childhood diabetes and hypertension, would provide reformers with an incentive to make physical education a high priority in K-12. But that has not been the case. Most states in this country have either watered down the requirement for physical education or eliminated it entirely because of budget cuts.

Consider New York City, where an audit released on Oct. 4 found that none of 31 elementary schools that officials visited out of a total of about 700 were in full compliance with the state's guidelines on physical education ("Audit Finds Paucity of Gym Classes in City Schools," The New York Times, Oct. 4). A similar situation exists in Massachusetts, despite a state requirement for physical education. For example, 30 percent of schools in Boston offer no such classes ("Classes come first, but schools must add more physical activity," editorial, Boston Globe, Oct. 3). In contrast, students in China start the morning with group exercises. Schools there believe that the practice allows students to focus more clearly on their classes.

While it's true that making physical education a requirement for graduation would take time away from academic classes under the present school calendar of a 180-day year with its six-and-a-half hour day, that objection can be overcome by lengthening the school day. Students in China attend school 41 more days a year than their counterparts here and receive 30 percent more hours of instruction. Schools in Singapore operate 40 weeks a year. Perhaps in recognition of this difference, more than 1,000 schools in the U.S. are now using expanded schedules.

There are occasionally other encouraging notes. The Los Angeles Times reported in a front-page story on Oct. 3 that Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach are in the vanguard of the physical activity movement ("Beach cities' next wave: getting healthier"). Parents volunteer to lead groups of children to school in what is known as the "walking school bus." In addition, there are morning aerobic classes on the playground and nutrition lessons in the campus garden.

School districts have also altered their cafeteria menus to reflect nutritional guidelines. Although the food is hardly gourmet, it is a big improvement over the past. Moreover, vending machines in elementary schools in 27 states have been stocked with fresh fruit, carrots, and yogurt smoothies ("Schools Dangle Carrot Snacks, but It's a Tough Sale," The New York Times, Oct. 4). This change is in line with a 2010 law that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set national nutrition standards for school vending machines by the end of 2012.

I've always believed that graduating students without attempting to instill in them healthful exercise and eating habits constitutes a Pyrrhic victory. It makes little sense to develop the mind if the body is neglected.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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