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Physical Education Requirements and Childhood Obesity

Candace Overlie

October 5, 2009

 

Introduction

Physical inactivity has become an epidemic in the U.S.  The perhaps most

unfortunate effect of an increasingly sedentary population is that the trend is being mirrored in adolescents, a group which, traditionally, has been the most active.  Schools are doing little in the way of physical education to combat the lazy, fast food culture that is fueling the obesity epidemic.  Physical education programs in schools are as negligent as ever, requiring little to no physical activity of their children each day.  “Approximately 92% of elementary students and 66% of high school students do not have daily physical education classes throughout the year.” (Crothers, Kehle, Bray, and Theodore, 2009)  The school physical education system is the most accessible and potentially effective avenue available to modify the physical activity of the adolescent population.  By improving standards for physical education, we could begin to address one aspect of childhood obesity.  However, exercise alone is not an effective catalyst for weight loss.  In order to be effective, it must be accompanied by a healthy dietary regimen.  This paper, however, will focus primarily on the role of physical activity in healthy weight in adolescents. 

 

(http://homepage.mac.com/juanwilson/islandbreath/2009Year/2009-06/090605comsumption.jpg)

 

Physical Activity and Healthy Weight in Adolescents

Although physical activity alone cannot support a healthy weight, it is essential in encouraging children to stay active and trim.  Children who enjoy physical activity (and presumably participate in it on a regular basis) are typically within a healthy weight range.  Regular physical activity is both necessitated and produced by a healthy weight; children can only routinely participate in rigorous physical activity if they are relatively healthy and in turn, this activity helps to maintain a healthy weight.  Similarly, people that are physically active tend to extend that mindfulness into other areas of health.

 

“Although mounting evidence in adults demonstrates the benefits of regular physical activity as a treatment strategy for abdominal obesity, the independent role of regular physical activity alone (e.g., without calorie restriction) on abdominal obesity, and in particular visceral fat, is largely unclear in youth.  There is some evidence to suggest that, independent of sedentary activity levels (e.g., television watching or playing video games), engaging in higher-intensity physical activity is associated with a lower waist circumference and less visceral fat.  Several randomized controlled studies have shown that aerobic types of exercise are protective against age-related increases in visceral adiposity in growing children and adolescents…Similar to reports with physical activity, evidence indicates that unfit youth (<20th percentile) are 2 to 4 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those with higher fitness levels…” (Kim Y, Lee S.  2009.)

 

  The CDC (Center for Disease Control) expressed a similar attitude concerning the importance of physical activity in youth. “Participating in physical activity is important for children and teens as it may have beneficial effects not only on body weight, but also on blood pressure and bone strength.  Physically active children are also more likely to remain physically active throughout adolescence and possibly into adulthood.” (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/causes.html)

 

Few studies have been conducted that measure obesity prevalence and physical activity in adolescents. However, of the ones that have been done, the results are rather convincing.  The SPAN study was a research experiment conducted in Texas (a state that has, over the last 8 years, variably implemented measures to reduce childhood obesity) that compared the obesity prevalence among adolescents with the success of proposed exercise/dietary programs.  In El Paso, one such program, CATCH, was thoroughly implemented. “The program significantly increased vigorous physical activity and decreased consumption of dietary fat; a further follow-up study found that these effects were maintained for 3 years without further intervention…”  Prevalence of obesity in the El Paso CATCH program group dropped approximately 8 percentage points over the course of two years.  (Hoelscher, Kelder, Perez, Day, Benoit, Frankowski, Walker, Lee.  2009.)  The results of a professionally designed and executed program of physical activity and dietary restriction are obvious: children who participate benefit.  This correlation is proved also by the fact that over the past twenty years, as childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed, physical activity in schools has declined. (KimY, Lee S.  2009.)        

 

Increased Standards for Physical Education in Schools

Schools provide a readily accessible opportunity for public health professionals; children spend an average of 6 to 7 hours in school daily (http://www.chicagotribune.com/media/acrobat/2007-08/32172546.pdf) and they are an ideal environment for enacting health behavior initiatives.  With the appropriate design and implementation, a physical education overhaul could have an impressive impact on the health of school-aged children.

 

An effective school physical education curriculum would necessarily be designed by professionals but would presumably include enforced minimum cardiovascular and strength exercises, mandatory participation in chosen sports or recreational activities, increased input from trained program coordinators, regular fitness testing with requisite standards, etc…

 

One study of Mexican American overweight/obese students tested the effects of a rigorous physical education program.  Participants formed two groups: the SH (self help) in which families were asked to encourage healthy eating and physical activity but little else was done for the children in school and the ILI (instructor-led intervention) group which received daily coaching and designed physical activities as well as nutrition counseling.  The study measured BMI, cholesterol, and other similar factors of participants.  Over the course of two years, it was found that ILI participants largely either maintained or decreased their BMIs while the SH group experienced some increase in overall BMI.

 

(http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/vaop/ncurrent/fig_tab/oby2009241f3.html#figure-title)

 

Discrepancies in the System

Although the entire American physical education system needs reform, certain schools are at a higher risk for requiring fewer minutes of physical activity per week.  As Table 1 demonstrates, bigger schools, urban schools, schools in the northeast and southeast, schools with greater minority enrollment, and schools with greater low-income enrollments all report lower standards for required P.E. time.  Unfortunately, the aforementioned schools are also more likely to have less funding and thus a weaker ability to fund and implement needed weight loss programs.

 

Table 1. Mean number of minutes per week of scheduled recess and physical education, combined, at public elementary schools, by elementary grade level and selected school characteristics: 2005

School characteristic

Grade 1

Grade 2

Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Grade

6

 

 

 

     All public elementary schools

221.7

220.1

216.9

210.7

208.4

214.1

 

Enrollment size

 

 

   Less than 300

242.1

240.2

238.5

230.4

230.3

240.5

 

   300 to 499

217.2

214.7

211.9

205.5

201.6

199.7

 

   500 or more

211.4

210.9

207.0

202.3

200.1

196.8

 

School locale

 

 

   City

200.9

198.3

198.4

193.0

193.2

186.3

 

   Urban fringe

219.3

218.8

216.0

212.0

209.7

212.8

 

   Town

230.5

227.3

223.1

212.2

202.9

179.1

 

   Rural

244.4

242.8

236.3

228.0

226.1

240.0

 

Region

 

 

   Northeast

192.7

192.8

190.7

188.2

184.3

184.4

 

   Southeast

184.7

183.8

179.4

175.9

175.5

201.2

 

   Central

225.6

222.5

218.1

208.4

200.8

186.4

 

   West

256.5

254.6

253.2

245.3

245.6

249.3

 

Percent minority enrollment

 

 

   Less than 6 percent

235.0

233.2

228.7

223.7

217.7

218.9

 

   6 to 20 percent

233.1

231.5

226.4

222.3

222.2

237.4

 

   21 to 49 percent

227.8

225.7

224.1

215.7

212.2

230.0

 

   50 percent or more

203.8

202.3

200.7

193.9

193.7

190.1

 

Percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch

 

 

   Less than 35 percent

234.8

234.5

230.9

224.5

221.1

227.2

 

   35 to 49 percent

232.2

230.7

224.7

220.2

217.2

229.4

 

   50 to 74 percent

229.1

225.1

220.9

212.7

209.1

228.9

 

   75 percent or more

190.8

189.3

189.4

184.8

186.9

179.4

 

NOTE: Respondents were asked to provide information for each grade that was considered elementary at the school, typically grades 1 through 5 or 6.

 

SOURCE: Table 19 in Parsad, B. and Lewis, L. (2006). Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005 (NCES 2006-057). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

 

 

 

 

 

(http://www.usinfo.org/enus/education/overview/foodandexercise.html)

 

Effects of Low Level of Physical Activity

The startling obesity rates that have grown steadily over the last forty years are the most obvious manifestation of our increasingly sedentary population.  Within this population of overweight Americans exists a growing group of overweight and obese children.  From 1976 to 2006, obesity in the 2-5 yrs age rage increased from 5% to 12.4%, from ages 6-11 yrs obesity rose from 6.5% to 17% and in 12-19 year olds obesity rates increased from 5% to 17.6%. (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html)  There are many proposed factors that are responsible for these sobering statistics.  Most researchers agree that childhood obesity is the result of a combination of genetic factors (ex. Maternal obesity), environmental factors (school physical education, availability of healthy food, etc..), and individual behavioral characteristics. (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/causes.html)  The most easily manipulated contributing factors are environmental.  Therefore the need for reform in physical education is especially dire because it may be one of the few things we can do.

 

(http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_K0SAcLycwTY/ShgbicFrJ1I/AAAAAAAAAAg/TboKQe63xAI/s1600-h/child+obesity+graph.gif)

 

Conclusion

Although not enough studies have been conducted to conclusively link physical activity with decreased obesity prevalence, professionals agree that inactivity is a contributor to obesity.  The difficulty lies in the multiple causal factors of obesity.  In children, however physical education requirements are a readily fixable area of risk.  Coupled with nutrition programs, improved physical education in schools has and will aid in combating the adolescent obesity epidemic and its associated diseases.

 

A Note on Impartiality of Sources

All research was taken from scholarly journals or state-sponsored agencies and not individual unaccredited parties.  The credibility and impartiality of the research was attempted to the utmost.

 

Works Cited

Crothers, Kehle, Bray, and Theodore.  2009.  Correlates and Suspected Causes of Obesity in Children.  Psychology in the Schools: Volume 46, Issue 8.  787-796.  Retrieved October 1, 2009, from Wiley Interscience database.

 

Hoelscher, Kelder, Perez, Day, Benoit, Frankowski, Walker, Lee.  2009.  Changes in the Regional Prevalence of Childhood Obesity in 4th, 8th and 11th Grade Students in Texas from 200-2002 to 2004-2005.  Obesity: A Research Journal.  Retrieved October 1, 2009.

 

Johnston, Taylor, McFarlin, Poston, Haddock, Reeves, Forey.  2009.  Effects of a School-based Weight Maintenance Program for Mexican-American Children: Results at 2 Years.  Obesity: A Research Journal.  Retrieved 29 September, 2009.

 

Kim Y, Lee S.  2009.  Physical activity and abdominal obesity in youth.  Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, Volume 34.  571, 574.  Retrieved September 28, 2009, from PubMed database.

 

 

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