It’s early August. We’re past summer’s midpoint and the barrage of back-to-school ads have begun. While those ads may offer parents a light at the end of the tunnel, thinking about schoolchildren also raises an important policy issue: the growing problem of childhood obesity.
About one out of six children and adolescents ages six to 19 are obese. In addition to heart disease and diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition are major risk factors for cancer, second only to tobacco use. One third of the more than 500,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. this year can be attributed to poor diet, physical inactivity, and being overweight and obese.
Being overweight or obese are associated with increased risk for several common cancers, including colon, esophageal, kidney, pancreatic, endometrial, and postmenopausal breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life is key to reducing cancer risk.
In addition to eating better, one important way to stop this rise in childhood obesity and future chronic disease risk is by establishing lifelong physical activity habits with strong physical education (PE) programs and regular physical activity opportunities in New York’s schools, both during and outside of the regular school day.
Physical education is the cornerstone of increasing the overall quantity of physical activity in schools. Furthermore, it teaches students the basics of physical literacy and how to integrate exercise into their lives in order to establish a lifetime of healthy living.
In general, as children increase the intensity and duration of their physical activity, their physical fitness will increase. A higher level of physical fitness is associated with lower all-cause mortality, risk of coronary heart disease, and risk factors for cardiovascular disease, whereas a low level of fitness is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, several types of cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression. Physically-fit children have higher scholastic achievement, better classroom behavior, greater ability to focus, and less absenteeism than their unfit counterparts. Several large-scale studies found improvements in students’ academic performance and cognitive ability with increased time spent in physical education.
Yet in New York, as is the case in the rest of the nation, there is evidence that far too little physical education is occurring in schools. New York State requires that all school kids take physical education classes, while the amount of such activity differs between children in elementary school and those in high school, at least 90 minutes per week should be devoted to PE.\
And while this amount falls short of what experts recommend, there is evidence that schools are not following the PE requirement. An audit of the requirement by the New York State Comptroller’s found widespread failures to comply. The Comptroller examined 20 non-New York City schools and found that in only one case was the school following current state PE requirements.
In another report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than half of New York State high school students reported meeting national physical activity guidelines of at least one hour of physical activity per day, with only one third of New York City students meeting that standard.
Experts recommend that school-age children, including those with disabilities, accumulate at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity and avoid prolonged periods of inactivity. To help achieve this goal, all school districts should provide all elementary school students with 150 minutes per week of physical education and 225 minutes per week in middle and high schools. And at least 50% of PE time should be moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Since it appears that at least in some schools New York’s currently inadequate requirements are not being met, the first step must be that school officials meet existing standards and that the State Education Department develop publicly-disclosed measures to report on schools’ success in meeting those requirements. At the same time, the state’s Board of Regents should begin discussions on raising the physical education standards of the state.
PE alone won’t end the obesity crisis, but ensuring that New York’s kids are fit and health literate will guarantee that the next generation will be both healthier and smarter.
Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.
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