Getting Physical

A new fitness philosophy puts gym teachers on the front lines in the battle against childhood obesity

Twice a week, Kale Granda, an eighth grader at Titusville Middle School in rural Pennsylvania, changes into his gym clothes, straps on a heart-rate monitor and mounts a GameRider, a stationary bike attached to a PlayStation. For the next 20 minutes, Kale, who packs 190 pounds on his 64-inch frame, transforms his physical-education class into a virtual motocross.

BY THE TIME his teacher, Tim McCord, signals the end of class, Kale’s shirt is soaked. He jumps off his bike, leaving his virtual motorcycle to crash into a virtual retaining wall, and proudly shows McCord the results from his monitor. For more than 13 minutes, Kale’s heart rate was in his target zone—about 170 beats per minute. McCord is thrilled and Kale offers a triumphant grin.
Ten years ago kids like Kale Granda warmed the bench instead of working up a sweat. Physical-education classes were showcases for budding athletes, a yawn for the able-bodied and a hardship to be endured by the rest. But now baby fat has morphed into a national health crisis. Nearly 15 percent of kids between 12 and 19 are overweight—up from 5 percent in the late 1970s. They’re also more sedentary than ever. Less than 25 percent of school-age children get even 20 minutes of vigorous daily physical activity, well below the minimum doctors prescribe. Public-health officials predict that many members of the Joystick Generation will begin to experience costly, debilitating illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes even in their 20s and 30s. These warnings have prompted some physical-education teachers to rethink their old Darwinian view of gym class. Instead of helping the natural athletes refine the perfect jump shot, proponents of the New PE say their goal is to get “mouse potatoes” moving again.

One of the gurus of the New PE is Phil Lawler, who teaches at Madison Junior High School near Chicago. A few years ago Lawler decided to check his most unfit students with a heart monitor after they’d jogged a mile. Although the out-of-shape kids weren’t as fast as the jocks, Lawler was surprised to find that many were clocking nearly 200 beats per minute. “What I learned is that the unfit kids were putting out as much effort as my best athletes,” says Lawler. But despite that effort, the poorly conditioned kids were being measured against stronger kids and found wanting. Lawler realized that instead of teaching kids how to win a race, he should teach them how to stay in the fitness zone—the most efficient heart rate for maintaining good health—for as long as possible.
These days, students at Madison strap on heart monitors and work out on treadmills, stationary bikes or a rock-climbing wall. Some try in-line skating or even power walking. When they play traditional sports, the rules are modified so the action never stops. Football is four-on-four without huddles or downs so the ball is constantly in motion. Three-on-three basketball is a riot of passing and shooting. Lawler is now a director of PE4Life, a nonprofit foundation that promotes more active physical education, and his revamped gym class has become a model. “We want to give students the knowledge, training and experiences they need,” says Lawler, “to keep themselves fit for their entire lives.”
Although the gospel of the New PE is spreading fast, gym teachers have a hard time convincing parents and legislators that gym class is worth students’ time and the district’s money. Gym is often the first class cut when budgets get tight. Last year only 30 percent of high-school students had a daily gym class. And many elementary and middle schoolers have gym only once a week if at all. “We need to convince parents and school boards that PE has evolved,” says Judy Young, who heads the National Association for Sports & Physical Education, the professional organization for gym teachers. “It can be a valuable part of a child’s development. With rising rates of obesity, it can also save their lives.” Schools in California, Maryland, Florida and several other states have begun issuing PE report cards along with the traditional ones, in order to show parents just how out of shape children have become. The PE report card measures each student’s flexibility, endurance, cardiovascular output and body fat and then tells parents what their kids need to do to get healthy. “For a lot of parents,” says Sarajane Quinn, physical-education coordinator for the Baltimore County Public Schools, “it’s a wake-up call.”

Some gym teachers need a wake-up call as well. Many are hired to be coaches who spend their time grooming elite athletes instead of working with all types of students. “We were taught that if kids want to sit on the side and not participate, too bad, that’s their problem,” says Peggy Hutter, a veteran PE teacher at Kearsarge Regional Middle School near Concord, N.H. “But now gym teachers are looking at all those kids on the sidelines and saying, ‘Hey, maybe we’re the ones who have the problem’.”
But New PE proponents say the momentum is shifting. The Texas Legislature recently mandated more physical education for elementary schoolers, and other states are considering similar bills. Last spring Congress allocated $50 million in grant money so PE teachers can refocus their curriculum on fitness. That makes sense to Titusville PE teacher Tim McCord. Years ago McCord says he graded kids on whether they changed for gym, hit a baseball and took a shower. “With the health challenges these kids face now, we just have to do better than that.” That’s a goal that should set heart rates soaring.


Getting Physical

By Fintan Lynch