Play the fat away

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LANSING — The state may require public schools to offer specific amounts of physical education at the elementary and middle schools levels, not just high school. The Michigan Department of Community Health says more physical education in schools could help Michigan’s growing obesity problem.

Rep. Maureen Stapleton, D-Detroit, recently introduced a bill that would mandate that every school offer physical education and health programs. The bill would establish the amount of time a student would take part in physical education during the course of the school year.

The bill states that schools have a program for health and physical education for students of both sexes in all schools and that each student attending public schools that is physically able would have to take the class.

It would require 30 minutes of physical education at least two days per week for elementary grades and 45 minutes each day for middle schools. In addition, schools would be required to give 60 minutes of health education a week for elementary students and 225 minutes of health education for middle school students over three years. The bill also has a clause stating that the number of students per teacher in physical and health education classes should be at the same rate as other classes.

In 2007, a similar bill failed.

High school students must have one credit of physical education to graduate. A quality physical education program requires more than just rolling out a ball and telling the children to play, said Roger Jackson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

Michigan has about 800,000 obese children, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health. Obesity contributes to many chronic conditions: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, asthma, certain kinds of cancer and depression. If obesity rates keep up, Michigan will spend $12.5 billion in medical costs relating to obesity, according to the department.

“We want to improve the health of the Michigan population — that’s our main goal,” said Olga Dazzo, director of the Michigan Department of Community Health.

The Michigan Department of Community Health says educating the young is a step forward. “Children spend a large portion of their day in their school systems,” said Angela Minicuci, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Community Health. To change the environment in Michigan and its obesity rate, education needs to meet all aspects of a person’s life, she said.

The Department of Education has benchmarks for each grade level in elementary school. For example, by the end of the second grade students should be able to walk, run, leap, skip, hop, gallop, slide, chase and dodge.

“Will we ever get to those standards? Even though it’s a policy statement by the board of education, it’s not law,” Jackson said. “Recommendations are not legislative acts.”

Since physical education isn’t tested on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, it often doesn’t get as much attention as the core subjects, he said.

Jackson supports the concept behind Stapleton’s bill but worries about it passing. In the past, bills that contained both physical and health education did not pass, Jackson said. He said that it’s hard to get everyone to agree on both issues.

Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical activity for students each year they are in school, Jackson said.

Some Michigan schools meet or surpass the Board of Education guidelines. Schools in the Traverse City Area School District must have three physical education classes for high school students, rather than the standard two. They also require a hybrid physical and health education class, said Marjorie Rich, president of the Traverse City Area School Board.

“We, as a district, chose to go above and beyond,” she said.

Rich’s district exceeds the requirements in Stapleton’s bill for elementary students but doesn’t meet the middle school requirements.

The district is concerned about obesity and the current lifestyles of many students. “But I think alone, that isn’t going to do it. I think we need to look at school lunch programs and what is being offered and a health component,” Rich said.

“Our research shows that a vast majority of our schools have a fairly strong physical education program, especially for elementary students,” Ellis said. “When it becomes less clear on the level of activity is when students move into middle and high school.”

This is an issue because some courses are physically active, such as dance, but aren’t counted in the curriculum as a physical education class, Ellis said.

The Department of Education doesn’t comment on pending legislation but will always promote physical activity because it is good for the health and education of the student, Ellis said.

Minicuci says that more physical education would be a good step in educating people about a large issue in Michigan.

“Just like anything else, we could give someone a set of knowledge skills, but that doesn’t mean they are going to use them. But, at least, they have them available to them,” Jackson said.

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