Gym classes are being sacrificed across the country to save money
and satisfy federal mandates stressing test scores in math and
A little more than half of students nationwide are enrolled in a
physical education class, and by high school only a third take gym
class daily, according to the National Association for Sport and
And it's not like most kids are making up for lost gym classes by
working out on their own time. More than 60 percent of children aged
9 to 13 do not participate in any organized physical activity during
their non-school hours, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention reported in August. And 23 percent do not engage in any
free-time physical activity at all. Translation: Fewer kids are
The phasing out of physical education comes at a time when
doctors are warning parents and educators about the dangers of
childhood obesity. Meanwhile, researchers are beginning to probe the
relationship between fitness and excelling in school.
In a study conducted by the California Department of Education,
higher academic achievement was associated with higher levels of
"This is something the Greeks knew," said George Ziolkowski,
director of pupil personnel services at East Penn School District in
Allentown, Pa., and a proponent of daily PE. "Let's start talking
about how kids who are physically fit and feel better and have rest
will do better in school."
PE Varies By State
Many public health experts and physicians recommend daily gym
class from kindergarten through high school. But Illinois is the
only state to require daily PE for all class levels.
Gym class requirements vary by state, but most states give kids
ways to opt out. And the quality of physical education where it
still exists, has suffered, said Paula Kun, spokesperson for the
National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
"In elementary schools, you might have a regular teacher teaching
phys ed," she said. "In high schools, it might be required only one
out of four years."
But there are some signs that educators and legislators are
trying to revive physical education.
Fifteen states are looking into changing their physical education
requirements to encourage exercise. The federal government is
handing out $15 million in grants to community programs that
encourage physical activity.
And across the nation, in schools and communities, small-scale
programs are trying to get kids moving, even if the state doesn't
A Personal Touch
In Florida, where 58 percent of children do not attend gym class
in any given week, health department officials did some research
into why kids didn't like phys ed. They went first to a five-county
rural area where 66 percent of adults were found to be overweight.
"The reasons they didn't exercise in school was because they
didn't like getting dressed, getting sweaty during the day, and
their classes were over-capacitated," said Cathy Brewton,
coordinator for the obesity prevention program for the Florida
Department of Health. "Kids said if they were going to do phys ed,
they wanted to do something fun."
Enter Step Up to the Challenge. The health department gave
pedometers to 6,000 students, teachers and staff. Participants are
encouraged to get 10,000 steps a day, and grades will compete
against one another. Students will receive Frisbees, water bottles
and jump-ropes as incentive to exercise.
Some committed phys ed teachers are rising to the challenge of
getting kids more active.
Patrice Lovdahl has taught gym at Rawls Springs Attendance Center
in Hattiesburg, Miss., for 17 years. Her state has one of the
highest incidences of childhood obesity and related problems. And
though Mississippi doesn't require it, Lovdahl teaches gym every
day, thanks to committed administrators, she said.
The key to keeping kids active is encouraging them to get
exercise in all aspects of their lives, she says.
"I'll go to a soccer game or football game because I want them to
know I want them to do things outside of class, too," she said. "We
can make a difference here at school, but when they go home, if
they're used to doing a certain thing, they're going to stick to