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What Ever Happened to Gym Class? Budget Cuts and the Rise of Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity rates are on the rise as hours spent in physical education are on the decline. What’s wrong with this picture?
 
 
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Elaine Gil is the only gym teacher at P.S. 24, a large and growing dual-language elementary school in the heart of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  The 50-year-old bounds from class-to-class in her sweatpants, sneakers and t-shirt, teaching 40-minute periods for kindergarten through fifth graders, one after the other. Yet, of the 750 students at the school, only about 450 are able to take physical education in a given year because of limited space and money. And those who do, have gym class only once a week.

The loss of gym time in city schools is not new, but it’s become ever more urgent.  Slightly more than half of the children in P.S. 24 have been found to be overweight or obese.

“My main goal is to get them moving,” Gil said as 23 third graders filed into the second floor gymnasium for their weekly gym period.   Gil is a self-taught phys ed teacher, using her early childhood education training combined with the internet and common sense.  “Most kids, if they have P.E. have lost weight.”

Two decades ago, 42 percent of public school children attended daily physical education classes.  Today, like P.S. 24, gym has been reduced to once a week in many city schools. Nationally, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools in the U.S. provided daily physical education or its equivalent for all students in all grades, according to a 2006 report from the Centers of Disease Control.

“We try to have incentives and programs that support physical education and healthy eating,” said P.S. 24 Principal Christina Fuentes.  But creating more gym classes is physically impossible. Her school has only one gym that fits one class at a time.

Inadequate space and funding make it impossible for schools to meet basic state physical education standards.  In October of 2011, the City’s Office of the Comptroller found that not one out of 31 randomly selected schools met the minimum requirements.

At a minimum, the New York State Department of Education requires students in kindergarten through third grade to participate in physical education for at least 25 minutes once each day.  Grades four through six are required to have 45 minutes of activity at least three times per week.  For all grades, including high school, the state recommends an hour of physical education each day, which is in alignment with the Centers for Disease Control.

The Department of Education is required to create district plans for physical education.  The last report created by the DOE was written in 1982.  Since then, childhood and adult obesity has been recognized as a significant public health issue.  In 2002 a team of public health scientists and public school nurses found that 50 percent of kindergartners through fifth graders were overweight or obese. The team’s 2004 report resulted in the FITNESSGRAM, an annual exam measuring public school students’ weight, height and fitness. Parents see these results and the Department of Health uses the data for continued surveillance.

“When we initiated this work, there was very little concerted effort within the DOE itself to expand recess or focus on physical education,” said Lorna Thorpe, who worked as a scientist on the team in 2002 and now chairs the epidemiology department at the City University of New York’s school for Public Health.  “I think a lot of change has occurred because of increased awareness of the problem.”  Childhood obesity comes from a broad range of environmental factors, said Thorpe, that include budget cuts, lack of space, and emphasis on test scores that do not value physical education.