Schools should increase exercise and track weight data, study recommends

By Annie Gowen

Local schools need to do more to get students moving and track their weight data, according to a recent regional survey on childhood obesity.

Researchers for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments surveyed nine area school districts and found that although all met federal nutrition guidelines for meals, none met the recommended 150 minutes of physical education a week.

The average elementary school recess was 15 minutes a day and jurisdictions offered 40-90 minutes a week of physical education, the survey found. Schools also need to collect weight data on students by tracking their body mass index (BMI) to provide a better picture of obesity trends, according to the report. Only the District and Arlington County track the BMI of all students, although there are smaller programs in Loudoun and Prince George’s counties. County planners should consider adopting land-use proposals that foster exercise and access to healthy food, according to the report.

“It’s well-known that the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. is increasing, and it’s becoming more and more evident that the pounds these kids put on aren’t shed when they grow into adulthood, [which contributes] to a whole host of diseases,” said Gloria Addo-Ayensu, the study’s chairwoman and director of the Fairfax County Department of Health. “We wanted to look at what the picture looked like in the region, and how we’re going to move together as a region.”

About 9 million U.S. children (or 16 percent) between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three times the number in 1980. Regional statistics on the epidemic are scarce, however, which is why the survey argued for schools to track students’ BMI. Such measurements can be controversial; some parents say students will feel unduly pressured if they are “graded” on their weight.

“It’s sensitive for kids,” Addo-Ayensu said, adding that such standardized tracking would give jurisdictions a better way of measuring which programs are working and which are not, she said. Fairfax County, the region’s largest school system, is set to begin tracking BMI, she said.

Some local officials expressed shock at the limited amount of time allocated for physical education for children, although such a shortfall is not unusual around the country.

“It’s extremely eye-opening. It’s sad, actually,” said Daniel F. Drummond, a member of the Fairfax City Council. Officials plan a regional summit with school leaders in October 2008 to see what can be done to rectify the problem.

Health advocates and parents have successfully campaigned in such states as Florida and Oklahoma to increase the amount of time children spend in physical education classes. Efforts to do so in Maryland have so far failed. Some area schools systems have campaigned against the idea, pointing to budget constraints and saying classroom time is better spent on academics.

The report praised the fact that physical education is required for all Virginia and Maryland middle school students, and the District has new standards for the next school year. Seven of the nine jurisdictions conduct physical assessments of students, some using a computer program that tracks individual progress and how students compare to national standards.

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