David Ludwig, MD, PhD
Do you worry that physical education classes take precious time away from your kids' studies? Then you should know what the research shows. According to a 2010 CDC review of 50 studies spanning 23 years, children who are physically fit and active often do better in the classroom than those who aren't active. Physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain and boosts the growth of nerve cells in the hippocampus -- the brain's center of learning and memory.
Phys ed classes offer kids many other benefits as well. So what goes on in these classes? And what can you do if your child hates gym class? WebMD asked health experts to answer questions you may have about PE.
You might be surprised. The old standbys -- volleyball, soccer, and basketball -- are still around. But many school gym classes have also branched out to help kids discover other physical activities that they may enjoy for a lifetime.
"The more innovative kids' physical education classes are teaching a wider variety of skills these days," says Cheryl Richardson, senior program manager for physical education for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. "Gym classes might include skateboarding, rock climbing, or in-line skating."
The newer activities can draw in kids who aren't interested in traditional competitive sports. "A PE program should deliver activities that kids at all levels can enjoy," says Jenna Johnson, an exercise physiologist at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. "The goal is to expose them to activities they might not otherwise experience and help develop their skills in a non-threatening way."
"Physical education in schools is one of the most important ways to help fight childhood obesity," says Joseph A. Zenel, MD, executive director of medical education at Sanford Health and professor of pediatrics at the Sanford School of Medicine in Sioux Falls, S.D. "Because kids are in school for so much of the day, it's a great opportunity to have a real impact on their overall physical activity."
But many schools have scaled back or eliminated PE classes to save money. Schools are also under pressure decrease PE time and instead increase math, English, and science instruction to improve their students' standards-based test scores.
A study in 2000 found that only about 6% of high schools and middle schools and 8% of elementary schools with PE requirements provide year-round daily PE instruction for all grades. And although the National Association of State Boards of Education recommends 150 minutes of PE per week for elementary school children, a study of 3rd-graders found that 33 minutes a week was more common.
"This is too bad because PE and recess offer many benefits to kids," Johnson says.
Some of these benefits include:
First, the students shouldn't be standing around. PE classes should keep kids active for at least 50% or more of the time they are in class.
It's also important that there is enough equipment for every child to use and that the instructor is qualified to teach PE.
Having fun is the ultimate goal, says Richardson. If your child isn't having a good time, try these strategies:
"The goal of team sports is very different from the goal of PE," Richardson says. "Team sports prepare children to play 1 sport. Physical education gives kids a wider variety of skills to help them learn to live an active lifestyle."
PE also provides a chance for children to work together with kids who have different abilities and different interests. So rather than choosing sports over PE, it's a good idea to encourage both.
If you are concerned that your child is not getting any PE instruction or not enough, talk to his teacher and the school principal. Here are some other ways you can advocate for quality PE time:
Cheryl Richardson, MS, CSCS, senior program manager for physical education, National Association for Sport and Physical Education.Jenna Johnson, MS, exercise physiologist, Sanford Health, Fargo, N.D.Joseph A. Zenel, MD, executive director of medical education, Sanford Health; professor of pediatrics, Sanford School of Medicine, Sioux Falls, S.D.Jackie Epping, physical education expert, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, CDC.Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: "Active Education: Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance," "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future."CDC: "Youth Physical Activity: The Role of Schools," "The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance," "Parents Can Help Shape Up Their Child’s Physical Education."American Academy of Pediatrics: "Active Healthy Living: Prevention of Childhood Obesity Through Increased Physical Activity."
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