This week, students at Cape Girardeau Alternative Education Center took their first steps to what educators hope will be healthier bodies and more focused minds.
For 35 minutes each day, just before lunch, students in fifth through seventh grades participate in a walking program. They'll earn prizes for meeting mileage goals. Walking will replace recess.
The program is backed by research linking physical activity to academic achievement. For the average fidgety adolescent, walking could go a long way toward improving classroom focus, according to a Cape Girardeau administrator.
"We used to have a short amount of recess right after lunch and when they came back [the students] were out of control," said Carla Fee, At-Risk coordinator for the school district and principal of the alternative education school. "Generally in the mornings they are calm, but in the afternoons they're often out of control.
"We're trying to eliminate this afternoon behavior that we've seen."
In the push to improve core academic scores, physical education in particular and physical activity in general have been reduced or eliminated from the American public school day. Academically, research indicates that's not a good idea. Based on the nation's childhood obesity epidemic, health experts say downsizing exercise in schools has proved disastrous.
An estimated 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to results from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The health consequences are pronounced, and the costs to the U.S. health system could top hundreds of billions of dollars, health experts warn.
A daily walking regimen helps drive down stress in children, according to, among others, a report in the August issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
But the benefits of physical activity have been found to improve mental acuity, bringing up academic performance. Fourteen published studies analyzing data from bout 58,000 students between 1967 and 2006 have investigated the link between overall participation in physical activity and academic performance. Eleven of those studies found that regular participation in physical activity is associated with improved academic performance, according to a 2007 study from Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
In the Sikeston School District, walking has became a successful elementary school program, said superintendent Stephen Borgsmiller. In some buildings, principals lead the walks.
"We find [students] are better engaged in the classroom. It helps the mind and it gets out some of that energy out," Borgsmiller said.
This school year, physical activity in Missouri is the law. Students in elementary schools "shall participate in moderate physical activity for an average of 150 minutes per five-day school week, or an average of thirty minutes per day," according to a law approved last legislative session.
The law also requires middle school students, at the school's discretion, participate in at least 25 minutes of physical activity per week.
Beyond exercise, movement in general is vital to keeping students engaged in learning, said Vince Powell, principal at Jackson High School. Cooperative learning, designed to get students up and actively involved in their course of study, ultimately improves academic performance, Powell said.
"They're not just sitting the whole hour. We find children are more engaged in the learning process," he said.
330 N Spring Cape Girardeau, MO