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Let's Get Physical

New legislation seeks to address the issue of physical inactivity among America's youth

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The story had become old news. America's kids were getting fatter, while the physical education programs at many schools across the country were getting thinner. And even though some schools embraced "the new P.E." - a curriculum that eschews dodgeball and similar activities to embrace more rewarding lifetime fitness and nutrition goals - many others showed mere indifference.

Then, near summer's end, came federal legislation seeking to address the issue of physical inactivity among young people, with the goal of nudging school officials toward giving greater consideration to the health and wellness of their students. "The clarion call has been sounded," says Anne Flannery, executive director of P.E.4LIFE, a nonprofit organization instrumental in helping the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee draft and introduce the new Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity (IMPACT) Act. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the obesity issue one of epidemic proportions. It's amazing the things that get done when you use the word 'epidemic.' "

The IMPACT Act may not be a miracle cure, but it does call for sweeping changes in the way schools administer their physical education programs. The bill, if passed by Congress this fall, would authorize the CDC to work with state health departments to help school districts develop and implement quality physical education and nutrition programs, as well as increase grants for more inservice teacher training and equipment. (P.E.4LIFE has already secured $50 million in federal Carol M. White Physical Education Program grants, to be doled out to schools this fall, with $70 million to follow in 2003.)

"This is a powerful bill that responds to what we have found to be true: Our children are not getting enough physical exercise during the school day," says Jim Baugh, founder of P.E.4LIFE and president of Wilson Sporting Goods.

Results of the CDC's 1999 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed that 13 percent of all children and adolescents are overweight - a characteristic commonly determined by the body mass index weight-to-height ratio. The odds of them becoming obese or extremely overweight as adults are about 70 percent, statistics say. According to the CDC, there are nearly twice as many overweight children and three times as many overweight adolescents in the United States today than in 1980. What's more, new information released last month by the CDC indicates that three out of five adults between the ages of 20 and 74 are overweight. Health care experts place the direct and indirect costs associated with obesity in 2000 at $117 billion.

While Flannery is "very confident" that the IMPACT Act will pass, state governments and the private sector are also attempting to effect change in a variety of ways. Earlier this year in California, where almost a third of all children are overweight, Sen. Deborah Ortiz introduced a bill that would have imposed a two cent sales tax per 12ounce serving on soft drinks and other sweetened beverages, earning an estimated $340 million for the state's anti-obesity campaign. That bill, followed by an equally controversial proposal to ban sweetened beverages at California schools - effectively costing schools millions of contract dollars - died in the Senate. Other states are considering similar measures, but their intentions may be off the mark. The Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy has found no connection between soft drink consumption and obesity in 12- to 18-year-olds.

Likely to be more effective is a recent decision by Texas lawmakers to reinstate mandatory physical education classes in state elementary schools - seven years after the programs were phased out to make more room for academics. The ruling requires at least 135 minutes of physical education programming per student every week.

In Tennessee, a leading state in adult obesity, a Youth Fitness Outreach Program sponsored by The Sports Barn health club in Chattanooga hosts low-cost training sessions for local teachers that focus on simple workouts and nutrition lessons for kids. It is just one of many clubs and YMCAs around the country getting involved.

Meanwhile, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education is encouraging school administrators in all states to conduct a self study of their physical education programs by answering 10 yes-or-no questions that can be downloaded at www.pe4life.org/downloadabletools.php. Officials who learn their schools are not up to par can request P.E.4LIFE's free Community Action Kit, to help them present valid arguments to local school boards for improving physical education in their districts.

"The first thing you have to do is make time," Flannery says. "Make time to get P.E. into the schools on a daily basis. You cannot reach 52 million kids in kindergarten through 12th grade sufficiently when you're just focused on after-school programming or athletics."

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