Yet most middle schoolers get just six to 10 minutes of aerobic exercise during a 40-minute physical education class, claims research released today.
The lack of exercise takes its toll.
During a two-month study of 1,140 adolescents, researchers at the University of North Carolina found kids in normal physical education classes gained three times more body fat than those in more active programs. Also, blood pressure dropped by an average of 2 percent in the active group, but went up by 2 percent to 5 percent in the sedentary one.
"There's a general decline in physical activity of about 20 percent from sixth grade to eighth grade," lead researcher Robert G. McMurray says. "Talking on the phone becomes the big activity at this age. More television, more video games, more computers. You know, it's not cool to sweat."
All the while, fewer and fewer schools are requiring workouts. The percentage of students who attended a daily physical education class dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Schools are looking for ways to improve children's academic test scores, and many have either reduced or eliminated physical education," McMurray says.
However, the drop hurts this critical age group the worst. Middle schoolers, besides being at risk of obesity, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes, are beginning to form their lifelong health habits.
"It scares me, the number of high schools that don't require physical education classes. Childhood obesity around the country is becoming an epidemic," says Gail Hutchinson, chairwoman of the Department of Physical Education and Exercise at California State University at Chico.
The key development in this study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, was finding a way to persuade kids to move and sweat. Instead of relying on the usual sports, researchers used smaller, less complicated games found in standard physical education textbooks. The students responded.
"We found that, given the opportunity, kids will participate. But the games have to be fun, and everyone has to get involved," McMurray says.
For example, instead of playing basketball, the kids formed small circles and bounced a ball in patterns that required everyone to participate. Or rather than volleyball, they crisscrossed two nets to cut the court into four sections. Then, they put small groups in each section and used two volleyballs at once.
Such strategies solved another common problem in physical education classes -- a few athletic kids dominating the action, leaving other kids standing around.
"No one can dominate that sport because there are two balls," McMurray says of the volleyball variation. "Everyone has to be awake."
John S. Hichwa, a former physical education teacher and member of the Middle and Secondary School Physical Education Council, follows the same philosophy when he gives seminars around the country. While he argues that students are more active than the UNC research indicates, he agrees schools need to rethink their curriculum.
"We need to offer programs for every kind of child, not just the athletic ones," he says. "Only 25 percent of kids are really athletic, but often physical education teachers put all of their eggs in that basket."
Part of the problem is the size of physical education classes, Hutchinson says. Many of the schools she works with in California and nationally have classes with 55 students, making it difficult for even a great teacher to keep everyone moving. While there are national guidelines about physical education, towns and states apply them much differently, she adds.
"People have to ask themselves, 'What is the value of physical education?'" Hutchinson says. "If we're growing a nation of children who don't have their health, the costs for insurance and medical treatment when they get in the workforce is going to be much higher. We're a nation at risk."
The research was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
What To Do
Visit the National Association for Sport and Physical Education to learn more about efforts to improve physical education classes. To learn about schools offering physical education classes, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.