Fit or Fat? Schools May Play Hefty Role

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

No parent who has struggled to get his or her teen-ager off the couch once in awhile will be shocked by new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that indicate that almost 16% of American kids aged 12 to 19 are overweight, a 5% increase from 1988 to 1994. Nor will their jaws drop when they hear about a study of almost 2,400 teen girls conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and reported in August's New England Journal of Medicine, which found that more than half of 16- or 17-year-old black girls and about a third of white girls in the same age group say they get no regular exercise at all outside of school.

Still, a May 2001 Gallup Youth Survey* found that 81% of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 say they do "some form of sports or exercise on a regular basis." One way to reconcile those seemingly contradictory findings is to recognize the critical role schools play in mandating physical activity for students who otherwise may get none.

Demographic Factors

Gallup data reinforce the notion that many teens lose interest in exercise as they age: 84% of younger teens -- 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds -- say they "do some form of regular exercise," but among 16- or 17-year-olds, only 76% exercise regularly.

There's also an ongoing gender divide. Title IX, the 1972 federal law that banned federal funding for schools that sexually discriminate, has been a boon for girls' sports. Since 1971, girls' participation in school sports has quadrupled, but girls still lag a bit behind boys in athletic participation. Worse, the Pitt study suggests, they're likely to quit altogether as they age. Researchers are exploring the reasoning -- perhaps girls think sports are not feminine, not cool, not worthwhile, or just something that doesn't interest them as much as it does boys.

Regardless, the trend toward inactivity among all teens has serious, lifelong implications -- and is a sign that the growing problem of obesity among American adults may not improve soon.

The Point of PE

Although gym class may be the only outlet for regular exercise for many teens, pressure to raise standardized test scores has caused some school administrators to sacrifice time previously allotted for physical education for academics. Several studies indicate that this sacrifice may actually be in vain, as school administrators may see the exact opposite result of their goals. U.S. Department of Public Health studies show that students who have increased physical activity during the school day concentrate better and have better math and reading test scores. Gallup data tend to reinforce this possible relationship. Eighty-seven percent of the kids who say they have above-average academic standings also say they do some form of sports or exercise on a regular basis. Compare that to 71% of those who say they have average or below-average academic standings and also say they do some form of sports or exercise on a regular basis.

Key Findings

Considering the connections between inactivity, obesity and academic achievement, PE classes and school-sponsored sports for both sexes are more critical than ever to kids' healthy development. And as Gallup data and the University of Pittsburgh findings suggest, the need may be particularly critical for girls, minorities and older teens.

*Findings are based on interviews with 501 American teens, aged 13 to 17, conducted from March through May 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5%.

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