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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.

For families in the P.S. 24 community, high poverty also exacerbates poor health. “Parents don’t have access to healthy food.  People live in very crowded, doubled-up housing so they may not have access to a kitchen,” said Fuentes.  “If you are working two or three jobs, you have kids, and you don’t have a car, it might be an insurmountable problem to get to that supermarket.” More families may then turn to prepared and processed food.  The neighborhood also has few safe spaces for children to play outdoors.  “It’s a deadly combination for kids,” said Fuentes.

Meanwhile, Gil keeps the children moving as best she can. The 23 third graders stayed in their street clothes, tossed backpacks against a wall, and found their assigned places on the gymnasium floor for their gym period.  They counted aloud in unison as they stretched, one knee bend, the other leg straight, and bodies folded forward with little flexibility.  Then row-by-row they warmed up — the back row running a lap around the gym, then falling back to the floor, some children notably out of breath and panting.

For the past several years students in each grade at P.S. 24 have been weighed and measured annually to determine the students body mass index (BMI) based on age, height, and weight.  Out of the 117 third graders in the school, 41 students are considered obese, 23 overweight, and only 45 percent are at a healthy weight.  For children, a healthy weight is calculated on a growth chart: a BMI between the 15th and the 85th percentile is considered healthy.

Students who are overweight have been encouraged by the school to keep food logs and are given the opportunity to work on specialized health plans with health practitioners from the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, a partner of P.S 24.  “The best way to address school-age obesity is medically and psychologically, through physical exercise,” said Giusepe Constantion, of Lutheran Medical Center, who has been working with P.S. 24 for the past 10 years.  Yet even the youngest students, 3 and 4-year-old preschoolers, who entered the school in 2011, were found to have an average body mass index of 17.9, a ranking in the 95th percentile, or obese.

According to Constantion, Hispanic children have some of the highest rates of obesity. P.S. 24 is 90 percent Hispanic.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, Hispanic boys are especially at risk: 26.8 percent of Mexican-American boys were overweight compared to 16.7 percent for non-Hispanic white boys in 2008.

On this day, the students were playing a game of flag tag and Gil selected four of the 3rd graders to pick teams.  The students tied rope around their waists, attached a colored flag, and then ran around trying to dislodge the flags from children of a different colored team.  Other activities include basket ball and the hula-hoop.

Teams decided, the children scattered to each corner of the room and stood in a hula-hoop to match the color of their belt.  “Play!” shouted Gil and the game began.  Within a minute most of the girls had been tagged out and huddled together gossiping. Most rounds lasted less than three minutes, but Gil let the students play up until the end of class time.

By dismissal, while many of the children seemed to have fun, few had the opportunity to really work up a sweat.  This group of students wouldn’t be back for another week, completing barely one-third of state physical education requirements.

Fuentes has other ways to try and make up for the limitations of P.E. classes. A program called Cook Shop sponsored by the NYC Food Bank teaches students and parents how to cook nutritiously.  Fuentes also encourages teachers to have their students play outside during recess year round.  For Christmas, she bought all the teachers’ aides silk long-johns so they could stay warm while supervising the students.  “I don’t care how cold it is!” she joked.

Extra-curricular activities are also encouraged.  Gil implemented the Mighty Milers running club with her students, which is sponsored by the New York Road Runners.  The program has students log the miles they walk or run each day with the goal of completing the equivalent of a marathon by the end of the school year.  These opportunities, however, exist mostly outside of gym class and outside of school funding, instead relying on volunteers and non-profit funding to survive.  For low-income families the personal resources required for many extra-curricular alternatives are not always accessible.

“When you are feeling physically fit and healthy, I think that everything kind of goes better for you,” said Fuentes.  “It would be really nice if this was a given for all schools, that it was not something we had to fight for.”

Rebecca Moss is a freelance journalist living in New York City and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School.