For decades, there has been much hand-wringing and consternation about the health of American children and the seemingly irreversible epidemic of childhood obesity.
But we continue to get an F in children’s general fitness, according to national data. Study after study has confirmed that childhood obesity has serious health consequences for our children. Every excess pound could put a child’s health at risk for serious conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, joint problems, reproductive problems, and physiological and social problems.
On the flip side, researchers have consistently confirmed that daily exercise for children is associated with a range of documented physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and scholastic benefits that can last well into adulthood.
Yet sadly, in our nation’s schools, there appears to be a continuous disconnect on the importance of daily exercise (nutrition, too), which raises the question: Are our schools unwittingly complicit in increasing health risks in our children and contributing to childhood obesity and the decline in children’s overall fitness?
In our zeal to improve standardized test scores, particularly in urban school districts, many schools have ditched art, music, gym — even recess. But these classes and activities are just as important as the three R’s. Instead of ditching these programs, schools should be teaching students to see the connections between mathematics and music, art and exercise, and nutrition, too.
Why can’t we have a cross-curriculum approach to exercise and health? Social science and natural science could be explored during physical education classes, showing how subjects are integrated and interrelated. An integrated approach would be far more engaging and fun, and would spark curiosity and deep learning.
As I reflect on my own childhood as a student in Philadelphia public schools, physical education (and the arts) always took a backseat. Despite being compulsory, my K-12 physical education classes were, well, a joke. And my nieces and nephews are having similar, if not worse, experiences today.
Sitting is more dangerous than smoking for children. Sitting not only slows children’s metabolism, it also allows blood to pool in their legs, which means their brains are getting a lower volume of much-needed oxygen and nutrients.
I believe exercise can transform children’s learning and achievement in myriad ways. So come on, Philly, let’s put our kids on a fit and healthy path this school year. Here are a few suggestions to get us off on the right foot:
Five-minute exercise breaks. Let’s break up the monotony of sitting with a five-minute exercise break. (I’ll take as little as one minute, too!) Students stand by their desks and perform simple calisthenic exercises, like modified jumping jacks, squats, lunges, and stretches. This gets their blood flowing and gets them energized and ready to focus on the lesson at hand.
Do yoga during PE. Integrating yoga into public schools helps develop children’s strength, flexibility, balance, and cardiovascular systems, and even strengthens their ability to focus and concentrate. You don’t even need a mat if you’re doing vinyasa flow, though I prefer a mat. I sincerely believe implementing yoga classes would be a low-cost high return on investment in planting the seeds for lifelong good health and fitness habits.
Instead of three Rs, we need four: Recess! Withholding recess as punishment was a common practice when I was in elementary school. Sadly, it is still done among many teachers today. Not only is taking away recess ineffective as a punishment, in reality it does more harm than good. Again, researchers have documented that children need daily unstructured play and physical activity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, recess plays a vital role in child development, benefiting children emotionally, socially, physically, and academically.
Recess is essential to healthy child development and should be considered neither a reward nor a privilege. Let’s stop playing with our children’s fitness and health; more deliberate physical activity and fitness means healthier, happier, and higher-achieving students.