When it comes to physical education, kids today have more choices than ever. Gone are the long-standing rituals like lap running and rope climbing. Instead, kids enjoy aerobics classes, inline skating and even square dancing – all in an effort to improve the general health and habits of today's youth.
Being allowed a free hand in deciding how to get kids moving even helps schools that don't have a lot of money to spend on gym class, explains Carly Braxton, senior program manager for advocacy at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Many make an asset out of the great outdoors, running skiing classes in areas with reliable snowfall to extended hikes in places where the climate is more temperate.
Federal guidelines recommend children and adolescents, aged 6-17 years old, get at least one hour of physical activity daily, but in the schools where they spend much of their day, mandates for movement vary greatly.
Thirty-eight U.S. states mandate physical education in elementary, middle/high and high school, according to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA, which is released by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and the American Heart Association.
Unfortunately, the kind of freedom that can be employed to provide fun and low-cost alternatives when it comes to phys ed is also used by some schools to forgo any kind of physical activity during the school day at all. Braxton says that decisions about exercise in schools tend to be left to the local districts, with very few states adopting a comprehensive policy that covers all its schools.
Which is a shame, because as Braxton points out, as not only does regular moderate physical activity lower rates of childhood obesity, but it has also in recent studies been linked to improved academic outcomes and better classroom behavior. According to Dorene Internicola of Reuters, sitting down for as little as 17 minutes at a stretch without moving leads to slowdowns in brain activity.
Dr. Jacalyn Lea Lund, professor at the Georgia State University and past president of NASPE, believes physical education is undervalued in classrooms increasingly driven by testing.
"Our kids get squirmy and stressed out. We know activity can relieve a lot of stress," Lund said.
"There's a really good program called Take 10, where children take little activity breaks to do anything from dance to music to throwing bean bags at targets," she said. "People found it makes a huge difference."
Jessica Matthews, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, a non-profit group that educates people about fitness, applauds teacher-initiated activity breaks, as well as the introduction of cutting edge programs such as yoga and martial arts, to local school districts.