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Educating the Student Body: One Citizen at a Time

July 24, 2013

Schools are rightly seen as important venues in the public health battle against sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition, and childhood obesity. Students receive health education, which includes dietary behaviors, physical education, and opportunities for physical activity. Schools also offer opportunities for participation in school and community sports activities. Neighborhood schools encourage daily student commuting on foot or bike, and playgrounds can be accessed before, during, and after school, including evenings and weekends. Joint-use agreements between schools and city park-and-recreation departments can enlarge the area of fields and playgrounds, and with adequate parking and accessible public facilities, greatly expand the variety and intensity of community use.

The subject has received thorough attention (420 pages worth) in the Institute of Medicine Report, Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, published in May. And the list of on-topic articles published in AJPM is extensive, including the latest School-Day and Overall Physical Activity Among Youth. This treatise happily finds that kids who get a dose of PE at school don’t compensate by becoming even more slothful out of class. We give thanks for small mercies.

I reviewed the recommendations of many recent articles on school physical education, and from my professional vantage point as a school facilities planner, I’ll accept, although ex post facto, the Surgeon General’s generous invitation to join the collaborative discussion.

In a nutshell, most of the policy recommendations are excellent in the abstract, but they seem disconnected from the real world of school districts as I know it. Public education in this country is under attack and the little red schoolhouse is being dismantled brick by brick. The effort to privatize public education is taking its toll, and there are more than 5.5 million students in private elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.

High School Students Sitting in BleachersIt will likely get a lot worse before it gets better, and recommendations that involve more staff, better facilities, increased monitoring and reporting and greater effort on the part of teachers and administrators are all fine and good, but essentially the stuff that dreams are made of.

Many recommendations require added supervision time, both during the school day and before and after school; require more physical activity teaching stations; require improved maintenance and operations of fields, equipment, and facilities (water fountains and shade are high priorities here in California); and new regimes of monitoring and reporting, with all that entails, including staff.

These recommendations come at a time of extreme financial pressures on school districts, massive school closings, teacher layoffs and class size increases, gutting of extracurricular programs across the board, and shameful criticism of teachers and school administrators. The mania for testing is so intense that at the elementary school where I am a volunteer, the newly planted vegetable garden cannot be visited by students during class time, lest valuable test preparation be lost. In such a climate of fear, you can imagine the response to exhortations for more physical activity during classroom sessions.

But all is not lost. Individuals can express their opposition to the closing of a neighborhood school, or ask that the chain-link fence be unlocked and the playground be made available to the community on evenings and weekends, as has been advocated by those advocating dual-use policies. Inexpensive apps, pedometers, and accelerometers can be deployed to encourage and monitor students’ out-of-school physical activity—perhaps also to meet state activity mandates and to engender healthy competition within or between schools, and parents can begin to drop their children off at a walkable distances to school, or buy a bike. But perhaps most important, citizens will lessen their hostility to the taxes that support public education, and ultimately the health and welfare of their children.

—   Michael Lytton, AJPM Blog Editor

Further Reading from AJPM

Long MW, Sobol AM, Cradock AL, Subramanian SV, Blendon RJ, Gortmaker SL. School-Day and Overall Physical Activity Among Youth. Am J Prev Med 2013;45(2).

Hood NE, Colabianchi N, Terry-McElrath YM, O’Malley PM, Johnston LD. School Wellness Policies and Foods and Beverages Available in Schools. Am J Prev Med 2013;45(2).

London RA, Gurantz O. Afterschool Program Participation, Youth Physical Fitness, and Overweight. Am J Prev Med 2013;44(3).

McCreary LL, Park CG, Gomez L, Peterson S, Pino D, McElmurry BJ. A Mixed-Methods Evaluation of School-Based Active Living Programs. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(5).
Sayers SP, LeMaster JW, Thomas IM, Petroski GF, Ge B. A Walking School Bus Program: Impact on Physical Activity in Elementary School Children in Columbia, Missouri. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(5S4).
Mâsse LC, McKay H, Valente M, Brant R, Naylor P-J. Physical Activity Implementation in Schools: A 4-Year Follow-Up. Am J Prev med 2012;43(4).

Ridgers Nd, Salmon J, Parrish A-M, Stanley RM, Okely AD. Physical Activity During School Recess: A Systematic Review. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(3).

Smith EM, Capogrossi KL, Estabrooks PA. School Wellness Policies: Effects of Using Standard Templates. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(3).

Maddock JE. Addressing Physical Activity, Obesity, and Wellness in Schools. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(3).

Southward EF, Page AS, Wheeler BW, Cooper AR. Contribution of the School Journey to Daily Physical Activity in Children Aged 11–12 Years. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(2).

Krishnaswami J, Martinson M, Wakimoto P, Anglemeyer A. Community-Engaged Interventions on Diet, Activity, and Weight Outcomes in U.S. Schools: A Systematic Review. Am J Prev Med 2012;43(1).

Spengler JO, Carroll MS, Connaughton DP, Evenson KR. Policies to Promote the Community Use of Schools: A Review of State Recreational User Statutes. Am J Prev Med 2010;39(1).

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