Critical mass crisis: child obesity

MARION, S.C. -- Like a lot of cities across America, this one is hurting. The unemployment rate has reached 12.5 percent -- that's right, every eighth person is jobless -- and more than a quarter of the folks here reside south of the poverty line.

And like many kids in many cities across America, the children of Marion are getting larger. And larger.

There's a childhood obesity crisis in the country, virtually any expert will tell you, and there is no shortage of reasons: increasingly sedentary lifestyles driven by video games, television and computers; a fast-food society in which soda machines and greasy cafeteria food are ubiquitous in kids' lives; and dwindling opportunities for exercise, particularly during the school day.

Put simply, at a time when every penny is being pinched by every school in every district in every county in every state, physical education is taking a beating. The experts and educators say there is no doubt that the erosion of P.E. has been a major contributor to the skyrocketing obesity rates.

And, of course, the more kids are unhealthy, the less they can exercise. This is their circle of life.

"The thing I notice is that the amount of time kids can sustain a moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is just monumentally lower," says Pete Ellis, who has taught P.E. for nine years, the past four at Easterling Primary in Marion, a school of 800 kindergarten, first- and second-graders. "Something as simple as running two laps around the track -- that can be brutal for kids. These younger kids, they do some running, some skipping, some galloping; and after a minute and a half, they're ready to pass out."

The childhood obesity statistics are numbing:

• 20 percent of U.S. children will be defined as obese next year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That's about four times what the rate was in the 1970s. Using the body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of one's weight in relation to height, obesity is defined as being at or above the 95th percentile based on standards established in the 1970s for kids who are the same age and sex.

• Between 1971 and 2006, the number of 6-to-11-year-olds considered overweight more than quadrupled -- from 4 percent to 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• There's a 70-80 percent chance that an obese child will become an obese adult.

• $14 billion is spent annually on child obesity-related health care costs, American Heart Association president Dr. Tim Gardner said during a recent press conference. Overall, annual obesity-related costs total $117 billion.

Equally startling are the numbers reflecting the state of P.E. programs in public schools across the country:

• Only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools and 2.1 percent of high schools provide daily P.E., according to a CDC survey. A study published in the 2007 issue of Health Economics stated that daily P.E. for high school students declined from 41.6 percent in 1991 to 28.4 percent in 2003. (The survey did not have statistics for middle and elementary schools.)

• 22 percent of schools don't require kids to take any P.E.

• Nearly half -- 46 percent -- of high school students were not attending any P.E. classes when surveyed by the CDC.

The messages that undermine physical exercise for students are everywhere. Many schools don't even have recess. Still others have P.E. for only one-third of the year. In most states, high school students are required to take no more than two years -- and often just one year -- of P.E.

In California, there's even a disincentive for high school students who might consider taking more than their required two years: The schools in the UC system -- UCLA, Cal, UC San Diego, etc. -- do not count high school P.E. grades or credits when considering applicants.

The issues are particularly amplified for minority children. Hispanic and African-American kids display the highest obesity rates; as well, the challenges to implement stronger P.E. programs in lower-income schools are heightened by larger class sizes, less funding and limited facilities.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) frequently is cited as one of the chief causes for the current strains on P.E. Introduced by President George W. Bush in 2001 and adopted by Congress in early 2002, the controversial law placed added emphasis on core subjects such as reading and math, linking federal funds to the results of standardized tests in those subjects.

In the wake of NCLB, educators lamented the need to "teach to the test," and administrators dedicated additional class time to ensure their schools met the requirements and avoided being labeled "failing schools." As a result, time devoted to electives such as art, music and P.E. plummeted.

"The thing in education is: What gets measured is what gets done," says Ginny Ehrlich, the executive director of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a non-profit organization working to battle child obesity. "If NCLB measured the numbers of times students pledged allegiance to the flag, it would all of a sudden become huge."

The Alliance, formed in 2005 as a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, provides technical and educational support to more than 4,000 schools throughout the country, helping them create healthier environments to combat obesity. One of the Alliance's primary concerns is the state of P.E.

Amid the alarms being sounded over the child obesity crisis, some states and school districts have adopted mandates requiring additional time for P.E. For example, in South Carolina, Ellis has seen the requirement triple in the past couple of years, from 30 to 90 minutes per week.

That would be considerable progress, except that virtually nobody can meet the mandate demand because the state provided no additional funding. So, it's a mandate in name only.

Ellis recently attended a statewide training session for P.E. teachers. When, during the training session, the teachers were asked how many schools were hitting the 90-minute mark, two or three out of 100 educators raised their hands, Ellis says. His kids at Easterling get about 70 minutes per week -- and that's a lot more than many students throughout the country.

In New York, the state comptroller recently completed an audit of 20 school districts, and all but one failed to meet minimum requirements for elementary school P.E. classes.

And in California, a January 2008 report by The California Endowment revealed that less than half of elementary students were receiving the mandated 100 minutes per week. Throughout the country, the stories are similar. And what are the repercussions for not meeting statewide P.E. mandates?

"None," says Dr. Toni Yancey, a professor in the UCLA School of Public Health and an expert in the area of physical activity among kids. "… If a school doesn't improve, if it's below average in its reading tests scores or its math test scores, then there are consequences for that school. They may be put on probation. They may have the state come in and take over -- lots of things they don't want to happen.

"If they don't adhere to the number of minutes for P.E., there are no consequences."

Conceivably, that could change soon. Last week, several members of Congress called for passage of the FIT Kids Act, a bill that would amend NCLB to add P.E. as a core subject and require schools to report on the state of their programs. Although there still would be no tangible repercussions for not making progress, advocates of the bill say accountability should put pressure on schools to improve.

Still, nobody is identifying where the money would come from to do things like increase time, decrease ballooning class sizes and ensure that elementary school teachers are credentialed to teach P.E. At the moment, that isn't a requirement in some states, nor do many elementary schools even employ educators specifically to teach P.E. Which is why experts and educators say it isn't unusual for the third-grader who gets P.E. once a week to have her teacher just toss out a few balls and tell the kids to have fun.

"Imagine an elementary school teacher graduating without any training in how to teach math or English," says Yancey, painting an unlikely scenario. "But there are a lot who graduate with no clue how to teach P.E."

Adds Yancey, "P.E. has been decimated."

The National Association for Sport & Physical Education -- a non-profit organization made up of P.E. teachers, coaches, athletic directors and other professionals advocating for physical activity -- says students should receive 150 minutes of P.E. per week.

At Southwest Community Campus in Grand Rapids, Mich., some of the kids aren't even getting 150 minutes a month.

"I mean, [150 minutes per week] is a great thought. It's a great concept. I would just like to see how any school pulls it off," says Amy Mabin, a certified P.E. teacher at Southwest, a K-8 school consisting of about 700 students. "… I don't think there are any teachers in our own district, any colleagues of mine currently, that teach physical education more than once a week."

In fact, some of Southwest's students are getting no P.E. for a considerable part of the school year. Mabin's kindergarten-through-fifth-graders receive 35 minutes of P.E. per week throughout the year, but her middle-school students are in P.E. for only one-fourth of the year, when they get 45 minutes four days a week. The rest of the time, they're taking another elective such as art or music.

So for three-fourths of the year at Southwest, hundreds of kids in the throes of adolescence are getting no organized exercise at school.

In spite of the huge challenges, educators such as Mabin and Ellis, who also is certified to teach P.E., are making the most with what they've got. Ellis has helped supplement his P.E. time by creating a series of DVDs with him leading 5-10 minute exercise sessions. The regular classroom teachers play the DVDs in the morning so their kids can get an early workout.

At Southwest, where the harsh weather can frequently keep kids indoors for P.E. and recess, art teacher Karen Williams came up with the idea for an indoor fitness trail. Mabin joined with Williams, and together they created 12 stations within the three-story schoolhouse.

Williams says the trail was devised mainly to give kids an exercise option on days when recess has to be held indoors, but some teachers have embraced the trail to create exercise breaks from class. She admits, though, it's a work in progress.

"It's like giving a microwave to a great-grandmother," Williams says. "It's in the house but won't get any use unless you show her how to use it."

Nicole Noren, a producer for ESPN's enterprise unit, contributed to this story. Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.