The New PE
Phys Ed -- don't groan! -- gets a makeover
By Timothy Harper
There were two big surprises at our house the other evening. First, my 15-year-old son, whose idea of a challenging workout is a new video game, announced after dinner that he was going out for a run. Then my 18-year-old daughter, who has always acted as if sweat was her own personal Kryptonite, said she would go with him.
Since we’re a family of naturally slender people but with tendencies toward laziness, gluttony and sloth, I’ve always encouraged my children to play sports and exercise. They were on their share of teams in our town—Ridgewood, New Jersey—when they were little, but like many teenagers they’ve drifted away from organized sports. So it was great to see them working out on their own.
I realized that, very quietly, the kids have been showing some signs of taking care of themselves. Lizzie, a senior, moans and groans about her physical education and health classes at Ridgewood High School, as kids always do. But she also makes occasional offhand references to what she’s learning about stress management, nutrition, working with weights and other aspects of long-term health. One day she came home talking about her percentage of body fat and how to reduce it. Another day she said she was having fun learning to play golf, and thought she would probably play a lot as an adult. She began coming home after school flushed and relaxed from playing Frisbee with friends.
Jonny, meanwhile, raves about his freshman physical education class, Project Adventure, which is unlike any sort of PE class I remember. The course is a series of daunting physical challenges for teams, such as six students using a rope and a few pieces of wood to work together so that they could all ford the creek behind the school. Jonny became one of the leaders, and made a real connection with his teacher.
Could it be that Ridgewood High School is doing something right?
Just about everybody knows that physical fitness is becoming a big problem in America, especially physical fitness among young people. The National Association for Sport & Physical Education says 13 percent of children ages 6 through 11 are overweight, nearly double the percentage with this problem in the late 1970s. At the same time, schools across the country are slashing physical education programs.
Is something different happening at Ridgewood High? By coincidence, I ran into Lizzie’s phys ed teacher, Chuck Johnson, who is also the school’s head football coach. I asked him if what he and his colleagues are doing really is different from other schools. He grinned, said, “Yes,” and invited me to his office, which is next to the rows of gleaming exercise machines in the school’s new fitness center.
“Coach J,” who has been a teacher for three decades, is an enthusiastic guy who cheerfully stomps the hallways and fields wearing shorts year-round, greeting and bantering with students and other teachers. He can also be intense, as he is when he leans toward me in his office chair and begins talking about how modern living has made Americans sedentary, and how that is affecting the nation’s health. We don’t eat properly. We don’t get enough exercise.
Experts agree with the coach. After decades of progress, the involvement in exercise is slowing. Some think less exercise, combined with poor eating habits, is reversing decades of progress against the premature onset of chronic diseases. The “unprecedented epidemic of obesity among young people,” as the Centers for Disease Control calls it, will make our children more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke, colon cancer, and depression and anxiety. Yale researchers, for instance, recently revealed that 39 percent of moderately obese children and 50 percent of severely obese children proved particularly prone to developing diabetes and heart disease at an early age. Much of that misery might be preventable if we can get our children to exercise more.
Yet the majority of students take physical education for only one year in high school, and by one estimate, 40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced recess or physical education periods, or are considering cutting back. Many students fulfill their PE requirements with activities such as sports, ROTC, career or work programs, marching band, or drill team. When school budgets need to be cut—and most do, these days—physical education is often the lowest priority and the first expense to go.
“Without any question, the No. 1 barrier to physical activity in schools is the perception that time spent in activity such as physical education and recess will undermine academic learning,” Charles Corbin, a researcher at Arizona State University, told the National Association for Sport & Physical Education. “The evidence does not support this assumption. We now know that making time for physical education and physical activity does not reduce academic learning and may actually increase it.” Indeed, studies show that intense physical activity can increase concentration, reduces disruptive behavior, and improves test scores in math, reading and writing.
Johnson also blames the new focus on standardized tests, including those required by the No Child Left Behind law. Kids are missing PE to spend more time being drilled for the tests, he says.
Everybody agrees that a child’s mind is a terrible thing to waste, but we don’t seem to mind wasting children’s bodies. (An aside: Maybe we need another law, No Child Left on His or Her Fat Behind.)
However, Johnson doesn’t long for the good old days. He dismisses the “roll out the balls” PE courses of my high school days, when students lined up, counted off, and played touch football or basketball. Those classes may have been fun for the football and basketball players in the class, but most students—I know this personally—found those classes boring.
Ridgewood schools are on the leading edge of a national reform movement loosely known as “the new PE,” which emphasizes collaborative, cooperative activities like Project Adventure, and “lifetime” activities such as golf, tennis, badminton, bowling, aerobics, archery, fencing, yoga, weight training, jogging, cycling, self-defense and rock climbing. Sometimes Johnson gives his classes a Frisbee or a ball and tells them to make up a game. “The only rule is that it has to be aerobic,” he says.
Educators from other schools around the country—Indiana, Vermont, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina and New Jersey itself—are looking at and adopting some of Ridgewood’s innovations. “Does it mean that our kids are going to be healthy? No. But at least it gives them more information so that they can make intelligent choices,” Johnson says.
He loves it when former students tell him about his influence on their healthy habits. One woman in her mid-20s told Johnson she thinks of him every time she walks into her gym. A college student stopped by recently and credited Johnson with inspiring him to take the first steps that led him to lose 150 pounds. “Life,” Johnson says, smiling in wonder. “The ultimate aerobic activity.”
Dedicated teachers like Ridgewood High School’s Chuck Johnson work hard to show students the benefits of healthy, active lives. But they’re not the only example their students can follow. Johnson says that parents should realize that they are role models, and that if they eat too much and exercise too little, their children probably will, too. Here are some suggestions for action:
Learn what your child’s school is teaching in physical education, health and wellness. Reinforce the positive lessons at home, or fill in the gaps.
Start eating a healthier diet. Snack on raw carrots instead of chips. Avoid the giant servings and third helpings.
Cut out bad habits, like cigarette smoking or excessive drinking.
Exercise as a family. Go for a walk or bike ride together. Instead of having a beer when you come home from work, have a game of catch with your son or daughter.
Get more information. PE Central (www.pecentral.org), a Web site for educators, includes fun links for children to learn about fitness and nutrition. Nonprofit Action for Healthy Kids (www.actionforhealthykids.org) hosts an excellent site with easy-to-access reports on the latest PE and nutrition studies, as well as links to articles of interest to parents concerned with young people’s fitness.—T.H.