By: Lauren Keating

As the rates of childhood obesity continue to climb, it appears like there is not enough emphasis in on physical fitness, especially in schools. With an emphasis on testing, students need to keep their minds moving throughout the school day. However, thanks to budget cuts, gym classes are often on the chopping block, as students miss the opportunity to get their bodies moving.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17% (12.5 million) of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years are obese. Furthermore, since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled.

While the rates of childhood obesity continue to climb, only 2.1% of American high schools have a physical education requirement, as reported in The Health People 2010 Database.

Those who are obese are more than three times likely to develop diabetes, which is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. While physical inactivity is a major concern for those children at a weight risk, they kinds of foods they eat are also of equal concern. Foods linked to a high risk of diabetes include: soft drinks, French fries, processed meats, and sugary desserts.

The CDC reported that in New York, 24.5% of high school students drank one or more soda per day, 32.7% of high school students wanted more than three hours of television per day, 48.9% of children 6-17 had a television in their bedroom, and 33.2% of children 12-17 did not eat family meals most days of the week.

According to the eleventh edition of “Core Concepts in Health,” written by Paul M. Insel and Walton T. Roth, “the tendency to develop obesity may be inherited, but the expression of this tendency is affected by environmental influences.” But genes are no destiny. It is important to educate students about health and physical activity so that they can take preventative steps that could improve their overall heath in the years to come.

However, many schools have cut back on physical education classes and recess. “One study found that 60% of the incidence of overweight can be linked to excessive television viewing. On average, Americans exercise 15 minutes per day and watch 170 minutes of TV and movies,” Insel and Roth write.

Photo credit: Creative Commons
Photo credit: Creative Commons

However, many schools have cut back on physical education classes and recess. “One study found that 60% of the incidence of overweight can be linked to excessive television viewing. On average, Americans exercise 15 minutes per day and watch 170 minutes of TV and movies,” Insel and Roth write.

Healthy People 2010 identified overweight and obesity as 1 of 10 leading health indicators and called for a reduction in the proportion of children and adolescents who are overweight or obese, but the United States has made little progress toward the target goal. But the Department of Education does not supervise physical education programs. Only 2.1% of American high schools have a physical education requirement.

“The schools are losing funding and don’t have the money to implement gym,” said physical educator April Barabash.

Barabash has been working as a substitute physical education teacher since the spring of 2011 in various schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx that include: high schools George Westinghouse, Poly Tech, Clara Barton and Erasmus, junior high schools Cunningham, and Seth Low, K-12 schools, New Explorers of Science and Exploration (NEST+M), and The Battery Park City School, and elementary schools P.S. 321, P.S. 39.

“I was student teaching in P.S. 235 this year. I learned that the school had intentions of cutting gym out entirely. Many times when the school does come across money or grants, the first programs they will cut from the budget are the cluster classes: gym, art and music. If a school gets a grant, the first resource they will improve, unless it’s a very progressive school, are tools for testing,” she stated.

As a substitute gym teacher, Barabash asks the students what they had been learning and continues with their lesson. With the younger students, she implements cooperative games. If they behave, she follows it up with free time at the end of the period. With most high schools, she rolls out a basketball if the students behave during attendance and most show they are willing and happy to just play.

“The gym classes in George Westinghouse High School are always packed, with 50 students per teacher, normally two teachers,” she stated. “The gym was relatively large, big enough for the 100 students,” Barabash added.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Students would play various games such as volleyball, basketball and matt ball. The army would come in to recruit students and would spend every Friday with classes for six weeks, as they implemented a training class full of circuits, calisthenics and full body workouts. Normally only the boys fully participated.

The school also provides a special, shortened martial arts class for seniors who have failed gym and need the class to graduate.

Michael D’Onofrio is a Math teacher at Abraham High School in Brooklyn where the majority of his students are Russian, but there are also a large ethnic mix of Black, Hispanic, and Caucasian students. His students are required to take physical education every marking period for a total of seven semesters and one semester of heath class.

There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence among U.S. children and adolescents. In 2007—2008, Hispanic boys, ages 2 to 19-years-old were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys. Non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls.

Race and gender aside, D’Onofrio’s math students are failing physical education.  “They fail because of a general apathy towards school,” he stated.

Photo credit: Creative Commons
Photo credit: Creative Commons

“Many come from households that do not place a high value on education. Intelligence is not as high of a mark of status as branding is such as what shoes someone wears, what clothes, where they shop. The focus is not on education or graduation, which is an uphill battle for all teachers including physical educators.”

Ishmath Cellion, and Tammey Hauter are sophomores at Midwood High School where they have gym class every day for 45 minutes. They can take classes like aerobics, dance, and yoga, but the choice is up to the student. Health classes is only required for one semester in the four years at the school, although gym is needed all four years.

Melissa Piccione, another sophomore, stands with her friends wearing sports gear. She is a member of both the soccer and softball teams; therefore she is not required to take any gym classes.

Cellion does not enjoy physical education because it is her second period class and “it’s just too early.”

“I don’t think gym class helps us. We don’t do much and it gets repetitive and your body gets used to it. I would rather just not be in class at all,” said Hauter.

According to CDC reports from 2008, people with higher levels of education are more active than people with lower educational attainment. 54% of college graduates exercise regularly, compared with 37% of high school dropouts.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that most adolescents do not meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommendation of at least 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity each day. 18% of students in grades 9—12 met this recommendation in 2007and in 2009, only 33% attended daily physical education classes.

“In most elementary schools the students only get gym once a week. During testing, or if a trip comes up, or a prep gets switched, some classes could miss gym for two or three weeks in a row, “ said Barabash.

Teaching was much harder at Erasmus for Barabash, which is a co-location for seven different schools. “Every gym class is two of those schools crammed into a small gym. The will be anywhere between 40 to 60 students assigned to a teacher. The students either do running drills, volleyballs drills, soccer or free play of basketball. Because there are two different schools with two different teachers working in one room, it is often difficult to teach full units, Barabash said.

The New Explorers of Science and Math is a kindergarten through grade 12 school that specializes school with gifted students. “The elementary school, the junior high school and the high school all share the gym, and most of the day you will find all grades in the gym at one time. It is incredibly hectic and difficult for anyone to teach a lesson. It is a terrible scene to see third graders playing soccer in a quarter of the room, high school kids playing volleyball in another half of the gym and junior high school kids playing a basketball in a different quarter.”

Photo Credit: Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Dr. Jessica Chow has been teaching physical education classes at Brooklyn College for a year, after finishing her doctorate in Exercise Physiology at Springfield College in Massachusetts. She believes that childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have almost tripled because of our change in a more sedentary lifestyle with a focus on technology and video games and changes in food production with a focus on cheaply made mass production.

However, she added that in New York City, we have plenty of opportunities to walk around and get moving. “Environmental factors have a huge influence. The type of neighborhood they live in. If you are taking about New York City, there are different opportunities to walk about.” She added that is important to be physical active and not just focus on exercise. We can achieve this by small changes such as taking the stairs instead of elevators.

“Statistics from what we know about these budget cuts to the art classes, music classes, and physical education classes, as well as the after school programs that do provide these physical activities are being cut out,” said Dr. Chow.

However, students are being educated on healthy food choices. “Schools instead are emphasizing nutrition more, they are getting rid of the sodas and sugary drinks and incorporating more whole foods in lunch menus,” Dr. Chow stated.

Dr. Chow stressed that in order for children and adolescents to maintain a healthy lifestyle they must get the required 60 minutes moderate to high intensity physical activity per day. “I have friends who are physical educators and just the space alone and the time given to them for that class does not meet that recommendation, especially at the high school level.” High schools are given 45 minutes for gym classes, whereas 15 minutes in the beginning and end are allotted for changing.

“A lot of studies show that there is a direct relation in regards to physical activity and their cognition scores in the classroom. It makes sense because if you think in regards to exercise and physical activity, if you are increasing your blood flow to your muscles, you are also increasing the blood to your brain as well. It is beneficial for the your whole body, not just the muscles involved with the locomotion skills, it definitely helps in a cognitive way as well.”

Students who are not engaging in physical activity and indulge in bad eating habits are at risk for obesity, but the long list of diseases that come along with obesity which include diabetes. Poor dietary and exercise habits, and their relationship with obesity, account for another 30% of cancer deaths. Obesity is a disease that happens slowly, whereas like Dr. Chow stated, 25% of body fat is genetics and 75% is environmental body fat.

April Barabash is currently pursuing a childhood education degree at Brooklyn College, where she has spent a year working on her thesis about how nutrition and exercise affects academic studies. “After many hours of research on this topic, I can honestly say there is a high correlation between exercise and classroom abilities,” she said.

“Students of all ages need to move. Gym will allow students to relax from a day of writing and sitting in the classroom. Exercise helps the brain to relax and get in touch with the physical attributes that studying never can. Kinesthetic learners may do better in this can help build their own confidence. Many studies will show that exercising before studying will help clear the mind and allow person to focus on the task at hand.”

It is important for schools to cultivate their physical education for the benefits of students in and outside the classroom. “Students need to move, bend, flex and play games. In gym, students may find a new confidence they can’t find in academics.  Gym will also allow students to interact with their peers in a new way,” Barabash said.

“Learning cooperative skills and leadership skills in the gym will help students bond in a way that sitting at a desk all day cannot.”

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