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May 2007

Can Fitness Make the Grade?
Legislation Will Bolster Physical Education

Everyone knows the story-Texans are dangerously hefty and are growing more so all the time. School children are no exception-study after study shows they are putting on weight at an unprecedented rate.

More than a third of Texas students are overweight, putting them at risk for numerous chronic diseases, including heart disease, State Sen. Jane Nelson of Lewisville told a packed hearing of the Texas Senate Committee on Education on March 15.

"Most shocking of all is that our youth are at risk of being the first generation of Texans to live shorter lives than their parents," she said.

Fight the Fat

Texas schools offer little in the way of physical activity: students in kindergarten to sixth grade must get either 30 minutes of physical activity per day or a total of 135 minutes per week. High school students must complete 1.5 semester hours of physical education to graduate. Even those requirements aren't enforced, however, said Dr. Kenneth Cooper, founder of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, a proponent of health programs for children and adults.

"When that law was passed, it was watered down and had no teeth in it, and it rotated PE with art and music," Cooper said. "There was no follow up, no nothing."

Dr. Cooper (who is also physician to fitness conscious Gov. Rick Perry and President George W. Bush), Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and Texas legislators are on a mission to move more kids onto basketball courts and baseball diamonds. Sen. Jane Nelson proposed a law, Senate Bill (SB) 530, that would require middle school and junior high students to participate in at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous daily physical activity per day. As amended and sent to the governor, the bill would require 30 minutes of physical activity for at least four semesters as part of the district's physical education curriculum.

"The goal of SB 530 is to re-establish in our schools a basic commitment to health and fitness," Nelson said. "Statistics show our current efforts are, regrettably, failing."

Middle schools may also soon have additional incentives to support school fitness efforts. Included in the state's budget bill, House Bill 1 is a rider appropriating $20 million for the biennium for a Middle School Physical Education and Fitness Grant Program with a goal of reducing childhood obesity and type II diabetes in districts with proportionately high numbers of economically disadvantaged students. The Comptroller and the Commissioner of Education would develop criteria for awarding the grants.

The rider requires the Comptroller to certify the $20 million is in excess of the Biennial Revenue Estimate. It also is pending the approval of the governor.

A Tougher Test

SB 530 goes beyond requiring the return of baggy gym shorts to middle schools. It also requires school districts to annually assess the physical fitness of students enrolled in grades 3 through 12. The assessment must be based on the aerobic capacity, body composition and muscular strength, endurance and flexibility of each student.

Districts will provide results by grade level to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). TEA won't release students' or teachers' identities in the results. The agency will determine if there is a correlation between the additional exercise and academic achievement, attendance, obesity, disciplinary problems and school meal programs.

Cooper has data from trials in California and Kansas City and an unreleased report on the Austin Independent School District that shows physical fitness not only improves student health, but also academic performance.

It's true for adults as well, Cooper said. In one trial, adults who walked for one hour, three times per week reduced their mental age (a measure of intellectual development) by three years and increased the size of their brains.

"We have undeniable data to show this high fitness performance related to high academic achievement isn't accidental," he said. Need more physical activity? Find out here:

Text alernative for In the Zone

Greg MtJoy

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