Just Say No to Dodgeball . .
. and Other Ways
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to Cure the Childhood Obesity Epidemic, Part I
majority of schools would probably still fit into 'old school PE' that is, if
they even have PE. Some schools have dropped it altogether. There are even
districts across the country that are building new schools without
The folks at
PE4life travel a hard road. The not-for-profit
organization, founded in 2000, is trying to change the country's mind-set about
PE (physical education class)a country that's getting fatter and less fit with
every generation. With over 25% of American kids considered obese, and the
sales of Xboxes and PlayStations, or whatever, soaring, today's youth aren't
exactly following the Pied Piper of daily exercise. Furthermore, their parents
come from a generation in which only an elite few actually benefited from
taking PE classes. The rest of us were little more than dodgeball fodder, so
why should we make our kids endure that torture all over again?
We shouldn't, and that's
why PE4life has developed the "New PE," a model for physical education that
promotes individual achievement, not mass slaughter via a hard, rubber ball.
PE4life helps schools win federal Physical Education for Progress (PEP) grants
and then use that money to create a positive, healthy system where gym class
benefits one and all.
Ken Reed, PE4life's
Director of Marketing and Director of the Center for the Advancement of
Physical Education (CAPE), took some time to talk to us about his organization
and the solutions they offer.
Tell us about the state of youth fitness in America today.
It isn't good and it's getting worse. Physical activity
levels have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years and we believe there's a
direct link there to childhood obesity, as well as a dramatic increase in type
2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in children.
There's a variety of reasons for it. There are
safety reasons in terms of parents driving their kids to schools now instead of
kids walking or riding bikes. The same goes for after-school activities. Kids
don't ride bikes to Little League practice anymore. They hop in the minivan.
Safety concerns also keep kids from playing in the front yard or in the street.
And then you've got the phenomenon of video games, DVDs, and TVs and all those
things that keep kids indoors. And you've got the decline in physical education
programs at the same time.
BB: Why do you
suppose PE's on the decline?
KR: Again, you've got a
variety of reasons, but it's primarily because of budget problems in schools.
Also, the focus is on the educational assessment test that almost every state
has due to No Child Left Behind and other factors. It's become the scorecard
for administrators and teachers. The focus is on reading, writing, and
arithmetic. Parents are also picking up on the state assessment scores as their
scorecards on how their school's doing, so they put more pressure on schools to
focus on those areas. Something's got to give, and it's usually PE, music, and
it also have something to do with the stigma PE has, that a lot of parents
remember PE as being pretty medieval?
KR: That's a good point.
There is that stigma with a certain percentage of the population and some of
those people end up on school boards or as administrators. They recall what we
call "old school PE," where the coach comes out with a clipboard and whistle
and it's all about calisthenics and picking teams for competitive sports and
dodgeball. We believe in a "New PE." The PE4life way is focusing on physical
fitness, not team sports. We'll have team sports, but people will play on
small-sided teams3-on-3 basketball instead of 5-on-5, and 4-on-4 football
and soccer instead of 11-on-11, so you get all kids active and moving. You get
kids on all the positions, instead of the athletes playing quarterback and
receiver and the other kids standing on the line of scrimmage.
The big thing about the PE4life way that's
really transformed physical education is technology, in terms of pedometers and
heart rate monitors. Our kids put on these heart rate monitors and you can see
clearly when they're in their target heart rate zone and when they're not. It's
an equalization process. Even the least athletic kids in class can get an "A"
based on effort more than outcome. If they're working hard enough to be in
their target heart rate zone, they get an "A" whether they finish the mile run
in 8 minutes or 13 minutes.
It's really helped kids
who aren't athletically inclined feel good about themselves and not so stressed
out about PE. If you visited one of these schools, you'd be amazed. They have
high ropes courses, wall climbing, just a variety of things. These kids love
it. They run in, grab their heart rate monitor off the wall, and put them on as
fast as putting on their old uniforms. BB: Tell us
more about the use of heart rate monitors.
KR: These kids get reports at the end of the semester on
what they need to do to keep their fitness levels up. Their data is downloaded
the day after class. There's nutrition advice in there. It's a nice, customized
report that the kids and their parents can get about their fitness.
BB: Speaking of nutritional advice, why do you think
it's the decline in PE and exercise that's causing the problem more than
super-sized meals and unhealthy eating in general?
KR: There are some studies that have come out in the
last year or so, for example, one study that was in The Lancet medical
publication. I don't have it with me, but the gist of it was that over that
last 25 years, caloric intake in toddlers and young kids has gone up three or
four percent, but the level of physical activity has dropped nearly 20% to 25%.
Same thing with a study out of San Diego on teenagers. Calories consumed have
gone up only slightly in the last 25 years. Activity levels have dropped
We believe that the
primary cause of the childhood/teenage obesity epidemic is more the lack of
physical activity despite the public perception that it's more nutrition and
the super-size mentality.
BB: Calories aside, the
quality of the food in school lunch programs has suffered. Surely that would be
part of the problem as well.
KR: It is part of
the issue, and it's more than just the quality of the food in terms of obesity,
but energy levels as well. Even with the diets kids are getting in schools, if
the kids were more active, they'd be better off.
Part of the problem too is
focusing just on weight or body mass index. Fitness levels are much more
important than body weight. There are some really skinny kids in our schools
that look like they're healthy enough, but they can't run 100 yards without
being too winded. So it's important to go on fitness criteria and not body
BB: How do you think the
fitness level of our kids is going to affect our country as a whole?
KR: Well, there's an article I was quoted in recently
about how the country's decline in fitness levels, of adults and children, is
negatively impacting productivity. This generation of kids is the first in 100
years to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Fitness levels, as
well as health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, are much worse
trend-wise than we've ever seen with teenagers and young children. The economic
cost just in terms of health care costs is going to be dramatic. Then, when you
factor in the loss in productivity, it's really going to be dramatic for our
country if it's not turned around.
BB: How many schools
across America are using the "New PE" and how many are still using "old school
KR: The vast majority of schools would probably still
fit into "old school"that is, if they even have PE. Some schools have dropped
it altogether. There are even districts across the country that are building
new schools without gyms.
PE4life has three what we
call "PE4life institutes" that are exemplary model programs in working schools
that fit all of our philosophies and criteriahigh school, middle school,
and elementary school. What we do there is train the trainers. We bring in
communities because with the budget problems in high schools, you can't just
bring in PE teachers or principals and expect much change. We encourage
community teams of 5 to 10 people, including PE teachers, administrators,
school board members, hospital administrators, civic leaders, and business
leaders to come in and see one or two days of training, to see what's possible,
and see how to make it a reality with fundraising and things like that. They go
back out and incorporate what they've learned into PE4life programs.
I don't have the exact
number of schools and kids impacted. We're in our fourth year and I know we've
had people from 26 or 27 states and four or five countries come to our
Click here for
Just Say No to Dodgeball . . . and Other Ways to Cure the
Childhood Obesity Epidemic, Part II