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Just Say No to Dodgeball . . . and Other Ways
to Cure the Childhood Obesity Epidemic, Part I

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"The vast 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 gyms."

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.

Beachbody: Tell us about the state of youth fitness in America today.

Ken Reed: 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 art classes.

BB: Would 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 teams—3-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 dramatically.

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 weight.

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 PE"?

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 criteria—high 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 institutes.

Click here for Just Say No to Dodgeball . . . and Other Ways to Cure the Childhood Obesity Epidemic, Part II

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