Last week’s big news included the release of New York students’ academic test performance. The news was grim: Statewide, less than a third of the students in third through eighth grade were proficient in math and English. And in some areas, only a tiny fraction passed: On the reading exams, a mere 5.4 percent of Rochester students passed, 8.7 percent of Syracuse students passed and 11.5 percent of Buffalo students passed. In New York City, 27 percent passed English and 30 percent passed math.
Not surprisingly, some called for shifting more time that kids spend in school from “non-essential” activities to more time on the “Common Core” of traditional academic classes, like reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.
But it would be short-sighted if schools decided that physical education is not considered essential to the academic well-being of schoolkids.
The health implications of the growing childhood obesity crisis in New York State have been well documented. What has been less discussed is the impact that being obese or overweight has on the academic performance of schoolchildren. Studies clearly document that students who are obese or overweight perform worse than fit students. These findings underscore the need for educators to lead the effort to make New York’s schoolchildren more fit.
Here is what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated when they reviewed the evidence of the relationship between fitness and academics:
“There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. These include enhanced concentration and attention as well as improved classroom behavior.”
Researchers have drawn conclusions that strengthen the CDC’s conclusions. For example, an analysis that examined test score performance between obese or overweight schoolchildren with fit ones found that,
“Overweight students achieved lower grades and lower physical fitness scores than their nonoverweight peers. Our study suggests that body mass is an important indicator of scholastic achievement, attendance, behavior, and physical fitness among middle school students, reiterating the need for healthy lifestyle intervention and prevention measures.” [Emphasis added]
In addition to the beneficial impact exercise has on academic performance, it is critical to improving children’s health. Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.
Research has suggested that the childhood obesity epidemic is due in part to a decline in regular physical activity and lack of access to health foods. Too many young people have fallen into sedentary lifestyles of long hours spent in front of the television and computer and playing video games. To make matters worse, many schools are cutting back on traditional physical education programs because of budgetary concerns and competing academic demands.
In New York, the state Comptroller recently released a report showing that some schools were failing to follow current physical education requirements. In another study, the CDC found to only about 1/3 of New York kids reported meeting physical activity standards.
Let’s hope that New York’s education policymakers reverse this trend and begin to invest in physical education programs. It will lead to both healthier and smarter schoolkids.
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.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.