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Why Gym Class Isn't the Cure for Childhood Obesity

Let me be clear here, right from the beginning: I know, I know. It's physical education, not "gym class." And physical education is essential for all children, across the K-12 spectrum. Some of my best friends are gym--uh, physical education--teachers, and I have been, over three decades in the classroom, thoroughly schooled in what vibrant physical education programs look like, and their tangible benefits for children.

I'm certainly down with P.E., and want all children in America to have lots of exercise and fresh air. We could start by looking at the way Finland postholes regular periods of recess between short bursts of in-your-seat academic lessons. What I don't want is another legislated fiat, pushed through by a commission, that further ties the hands of school districts. Like this proposal, from Michigan, that legislatively requires 90 minutes of P.E. weekly for  grades K-5, plus an additional 60 minutes of "recess and other physical activity." In grades 6-8, schools would be ordered to provide a semester of daily physical education for each child.

Pretty reasonable, right? Just mandate these changes, and --boom!--we're on our way to healthier kids, who will  "show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized tests than children who are not as active." Except that we leave thousands of elementary and middle schools (who, trust me, want very much to provide physical education for their students) stuck with another well-meant set of demands to fit into the limited parameters of the school day. 

  • Scheduling. What about schools (like mine) that have struggled to keep 75 minutes of high-quality physical education per week going in K-5? Who's going to give up the extra 15 minutes of instruction to meet the requirement? I can tell you that it won't come out of literacy or math instruction.
  • Staffing and class size. Who will teach these required classes? For many schools, this would necessitate hiring more professional staff. Or (more likely) doubling classes up, on the theory that (forgive me) "it's only gym class." That's not the way good physical education looks--good P.E. is about individual health and lifelong fitness--but already-stretched schools will have to meet this demand somehow. The alternative plan would be letting the music or art teacher go--or maybe the counselor. Take your pick.
  • Facilities. How many elementary schools have a full-sized gym, dedicated to physical education 24/7? Many have a multi-purpose room--part gym, part cafeteria, part auditorium, and not really ideal for any of these functions. Where will the additional instruction take place? If you lived through the Michigan Winter of 2014, you'll understand why "outdoors" is not the right answer. 

Passing a law mandating physical education minimums might have the effect of turning hundreds of pretty-good P.E. programs into more-kids/more-time/less-value programs. Besides--aren't these decisions best made by local school leaders and school boards? As a teacher who once made a (semi-successful) pitch to the local school board to allow my students to substitute four years' participation in the marching band for one semester of physical education, I know there are lots of ways to get kids off the couch and moving. 

Like any number of silver policy bullets--the Common Core State [sic] Standards, teacher evaluation by test data, and for-profit charter schools spring to mind here--requiring additional physical education in schools is not the go-to remedy for a clear crisis, in this case, rampant childhood obesity.  It (like the aforementioned bullets) is simply something we can do, when the real, long-term solution seems impossible, out of reach or "too expensive." Notice how the commission paints "modern" physical education, unlike the weak-sauce P.E. you presumably endured:

Not unlike a math or science curriculum, they follow specific lesson plans with students learning and demonstrating competencies that are measurable and aligned with national standards. 

Ah, yes. Even gym teachers have lesson plans now. Reason enough to up the ante. Best of all, this political "resolution" to the obesity threat is do-able--if you ignore the unanticipated  consequences. 

Most importantly, it's a mismatch between cause and remediation. Any quick look at the genuinely terrifying rise in childhood obesity identifies core reasons: More fast food and snacking. More sugary soda. Genetics. Grossly overweight parents whose understanding of nutrition is lacking. More TV-watching and computer-using. Less time outside, in unstructured physical activity. Like recess. 

There is research that shows that giving kindergarteners an additional hour of physical education every day resulted in reducing the percentage of girls classified as overweight from 9.8 to 5.6 percent. That's huge--both the rate of improvement and the investment to achieve it. But it's proof that vigorous physical activity is of critical importance of children's health. How might we encourage that activity, without mandating in-class minutes and stepping on schools' autonomy? 

This is really about a core principle in building healthy communities in society: Pay now or pay later. As we build communities that "work" for their populations--offering opportunity, equity, health and happiness--it's always better to establish baseline conditions for the welfare of the people. Things like readily available, affordable fruits and vegetables and safe places for human beings to play. Jobs for parents and subsidized child care. 

If we're going to make laws, maybe the folks we're going after should be those who knowingly produce junk food, then advertise it to vulnerable children. If we're going to invest, maybe we need after-school programs to safely involve children in supervised physical play rather than watching commercials. Maybe we need to eliminate dangerous neighborhoods and food deserts. But that would be "impossible." Right? 

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