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At Issue: Getting kids to move

Published (2/20/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Jack Olwell, left, a physical education teacher at North Trail Elementary School in Farmington, tells the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee Feb. 18 that the name of the bill requiring statewide standards for physical education should be “No Child Left on Their Behind.”  Greg LeMond, right, a three-time winner of the Tour de France, also testified in support of the bill. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Minnesota’s children are gaining — but that’s not always good.

Since 1990, the prevalence of obesity in the state’s general population has increased 155 percent, according to the American Heart Association, while the Centers for Disease Control has found childhood and youth obesity almost tripled from about 6 percent nationally to almost 20 percent between 1971 and 2004.

While obesity plus sedentary lifestyles equals high risk for heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, exercise can reverse children’s risk of being overweight and its lifelong health problems.

But exercise is like a secret weapon in the war to improve test scores, say some educators who find that boosting students’ activity levels improves their ability to learn — or as Farmington physical education teacher Jack Olwell quipped: “No child left on their behind.”

The movement to get kids to move may have begun in Naperville, Ill. public schools. Seventeen years ago that district began to incorporate vigorous daily physical education; last year, 98 percent of its 19,000 students took the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study tests which show students’ ranking globally.

“They came in number one in the world in science and sixth in math,” Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on exercise and brain chemistry, told the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee Feb. 18.

Student success through exercise

Olwell works at North Trail Elementary School, where student success has been boosted through targeted physical activity. For example, a mini-class called Literacy PE has helped a group of fourth- and fifth-graders identified as “struggling” readers, based on their Northwest Evaluation Association test scores, to improve dramatically with a daily dose of exercise.

“In this era of academic accountability and fiscal constraints, it is difficult to argue for an increase in physical education time solely on the basis that it lengthens and adds quality to life,” said Olwell.

Literacy PE students’ reading class is preceded by a 15-minute physical education session involving “vigorous activities and games embedded with reading components,” said. In late-January, following the nine-week class, students were again administered an NWEA test.

“The results have been stunning,” Olwell said. “Literacy PE participants showed an average increase of five times the national average in reading.” More to the point, he said, they improved three times their fourth- and fifth-grade peers in their district, and almost twice the Title I average.

A bill before the House would help teachers like Olwell to promote exercise and fitness. HF439 would require statewide physical education standards including one-half credit of physical education for high school graduation.

“It has always been my belief that our schools when acting in loco parentis should be the role model for not only academics but social and nutritional standards,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester), a public health advocate who has also promoted school nutrition and “Reclaiming Recess,” a movement to keep recess time in the school day. She said physical education, like music, is integral to a well-rounded curriculum, but often on the chopping block when districts face serious budget constraints.

The bill was approved Feb. 19 by the committee and sent to the House Finance Committee. It has no Senate companion.

Ratey, the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and Driven to Distraction, said well designed exercise programs not only help children focus in school, but significantly reduces behavioral problems and boosts test scores.

Schools with high rates of disciplinary problems or many students diagnosed with attention deficit disorder might take note: “Exercise releases a lot of neurotransmitters,” Ratey said after the hearing. “It’s like taking a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac.”

“When I hear about education reform,” said three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, “you could have the best schools in the world but if your kids can’t pay attention, their brains are asleep, they’re not going to absorb what they need to. I think that’s what Dr. Ratey’s studies have shown.”

Olwell and Ratey agree student exercise programs show best results from daily, morning sessions and an emphasis on aerobic fitness, not “ball sports” or athletics.

“It’s not about who’s good, who’s bad,” Ratey said. “Everybody plays all the time.”

North Trail Elementary principal Steven Geis calls the effects of his school’s physical education program “magical.”

“It works. Student scores, their engagement, the attendance rate, the obesity rate — we’re less than 5 percent in our student population — all those things by having student engagement in the gym is just magical. To have that in all the schools would be wonderful.”

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