New P.E. is old P.E.

Friday, March 26, 2004

With national studies showing obesity among both adults and children continuing to abound, local schools are taking a nip-it-in-the-bud approach to slimming down students.

Coaches and physical education teachers in Cape Girardeau and Jackson say the advent of video games and computers are in part responsible for obesity in young people.

"A lot of times, the only activity students get is in school," said Terry Kitchen, a physical education teacher at Central Junior High in Cape Girardeau. "So when students get to me, it's my obligation to make sure they get a good workout."

In the 1960s, 4.2 percent of all 6- to 11-year-olds in the United States were overweight. Over the last 40 years, that percentage has more than tripled to 15.3 percent in that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Among children ages 12 to 19, the overweight percentage has increased from 4.6 percent 40 years ago to 15.5 percent now.

"In some ways, physical education has changed because of the news on obesity. It's made us aware, and we're trying to help," said Rex Crosnoe, a physical education teacher and coach at R.O. Hawkins Junior High School in Jackson. "We hear about the problem, and sometimes we see it too."

Crosnoe said the after-school activities students engage in have changed in recent years because of technological advances. The Institute for Social Inventions, a charitable organization based in London, estimates that American children now spend an average of five hours per day watching TV or playing video games.

Crosnoe says it's up to parents to monitor what their children do in their spare time and also what they eat.

"I know as a parent that a lot of the time it's about what's easiest to cook," Crosnoe said. "But what's quickest isn't always what's healthiest."

Students in Zach Walton's physical education classes at South Elementary in Jackson begin each session with warm-up exercises and stretches, then run laps or practice skipping, galloping and jogging backwards.

While the junior high classes meet for around 50 minutes a day five days a week, Walton has students only 30 minutes two days a week.

"If I'm trying to tackle obesity, one hour a week probably isn't enough," he said. "But I'm not sure that's what schools are set up to do."

Sheila Midgett, who coaches and teaches physical education and a health class at R.O. Hawkins, agrees that schools can't be totally responsible for a student's health and weight.

"Our responsibility is to teach them about healthy living, but what they do with what they learn is up to them," Midgett said.

Students in Midgett's health class keep a food log of everything they eat, and some of their diets surprised the 16-year teacher. Midgett said some of the students have a daily habit of eating a fudge round and drinking a soda for lunch.

"I look at those and think it's no wonder the students need to exercise to offset their poor eating behaviors," Midgett said.

Measure of fitness

At Central Junior High, Terry Kitchen's students took part in the Presidential Fitness Program this week, an assessment that measures the physical abilities of youth. It's an annual event that takes into account students' abdominal and upper body strength, flexibility, body fat composition and how fast they can run a mile.

Game activities, which Kitchen said are good for teaching sportsmanship and teamwork, are popular in physical education classes. But they can leave children on the sidelines doing nothing until it's their turn.

"I think for awhile we got away from the physical part of physical education," Kitchen said.

Kitchen's classes begin with a regimen of push-ups, sit-ups, stretches and running.

"Some students don't want to participate because they're embarrassed around those who are stronger," Kitchen said. "As a teacher, I try to make sure they're successful at something and that they get that physical activity."

And when a student's weight becomes an issue, Kitchen doesn't hesitate to talk to parents about it.

"I've never had a parent get irritated when I bring that up," Kitchen said. "In fact, they seem pleased that I paid attention and cared that much about their child."

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