Putting Physical Back in Education

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America has an obesity problem. That’s not exactly breaking news, given the scores of news reports and documentaries created in direct response to the issue in recent memory. Still, statistics like those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put the epidemic in stark perspective, especially in terms of young Americans.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled among children in the past three decades, and quadrupled in adolescents. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, and the percentage of obesity in children ages 6-11 has increased from seven percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012.

Over the past few years, it’s been often noted that diet is the most important factor in terms of weight gain and the overall obesity problem. However, inactivity is also a key factor, and it may come as no surprise that kids today are less active and less fit than in years past.

It’s disconcerting, then, to see the recent dip in physical education in the United States, despite efforts from various lawmakers to incentivize physical activity for children. The main culprits are widespread budget cuts, which, combined with an overemphasis on standardized testing, have pushed physical education along with many of the arts to the back burner.

Len Saunders, an award-winning fitness consultant, author, and physical educator, sees the obsession with testing and new teaching method as cruxes of the issue. He also believes those in positions of power will eventually come to realize the folly of deemphasizing gym class and recess.

“I do think once they see how quickly obesity rates are increasing and that kids are slowing down on homework, after school activities, and not participating in sports, they’ll realize they made a big mistake down the line,” Saunders says.

Getting physical education and activity back into primary school rotations is important in the fight against obesity. Saunders already sees the epidemic as critical, and perhaps the most obvious evidence is the increase in children with type 2 diabetes, which used to be known primarily as adult onset diabetes.

“The bodies of these kids are reacting to being overweight and not eating right or getting enough exercise,” he says. “There are warning signs out there, and we have to listen to these things because we don’t want to get to a point of no return.”

Even while school budget problems persist throughout the country and physical education continues to decline, Saunders believes the onus falls on parents to monitor their child’s activity and get more involved.

“What that means is know what kids are doing and keep an eye on them. Don’t put all your trust in them that they’re going to get all the activity they need,” Saunders said.

It’s important to recognize that times are changing, and with consistent vices of technology and sugar abound, parents need to adjust along with new trends.

“We can’t raise kids today like we did 20 years ago when it comes to fitness and health,” Saunders says. “We really need to educate ourselves and educate our children on the proper ways to lead a healthy lifestyle, because the habits they form now are the habits they’re going to carry into adulthood.”

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