The new PE: Less competition, more fitness

January 7th, 2016 No comments

Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2015 12:33 pm | Updated: 12:37 pm, Thu Dec 17, 2015.

Joanne Lannin

The bell rings and sixth-graders start to stream into the gym for physical education class at Westbrook Middle School. That’s when teacher Michele Higgins cranks up the music.

Higgins will continue to play music throughout many of the activities her students engage in, whether they are doing their “dynamic warm-ups,” learning dance steps, doing some yoga stretches, or playing a lively game of floor hockey.

“Music really helps the kids get engaged,” says Higgins. “Not everyone likes to do every activity. But they run to get to the locker room and are excited to be here. I don’t have any students who refuse to participate.”

Higgins, who has been teaching middle school physical education for 11 years, was recently honored as Maine’s middle school Physical Education Teacher of the Year at the Maine Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Conference in Rockland. She has been at the forefront of many of the changes going on in Maine and across the country in terms of the way physical education classes are conducted.

“We try to do less competitive sports and more cooperative activities to appeal to a greater number of kids,” she says. “So many kids today are not active. We try to give them more options for activities they can be involved in (for a lifetime).”

Before computer games and cell phones, back when kids spent most of their childhood outside playing games of their own invention, it made sense that physical education classes were devoted more to showing kids how to play various sports and games. But in the past 20 years, since Higgins graduated from Gorham High School in the 1997, the average school-aged child has become much less active, and consequently much less fit. Various studies say up to one-third of children in the country today are overweight or obese – a number that some say has tripled in the past three decades.

Professor Robert Lehnhard at the University of Maine has conducted fitness studies through the years involving school-aged kids. He has concluded that students who progressed through 12 years of school were “significantly less fit when they finished than when they started.”

Lehnhard lays the blame not at the feet of the old physical education curriculum, but more on the cuts to the physical education departments and the time allotted to PE in the overall school year.

“Having PE twice a week for 40 minutes, no one’s going to get fit with that,” he says.

“If we did that with reading, no child would be able to read.”

In the face of budget cuts and shrinking resources – and presented with such alarming and daunting statistics on kids’ lack of fitness – physical educators have realized that their approach needed to maximize the time they were given. Thus, many have made it their mission not only to help students understand the importance of being active, but also to give them the tools and the motivation to become more active once they are on their own.

For MaryEllen Schaper that motivation often takes the form of music and dance. She teaches health, PE and dance at Bonny Eagle Middle School and has for 14 years.

Prior to that she taught elementary PE and dance for 26 years.

“I was not an athlete in school, and went into PE because I wanted to reach kids like me who weren’t athletes, and because of the science,” she says. “I also think dance should be accessible to all. When I taught at the elementary level, my curriculum was 60 percent dance, including a district wide GT (gifted and talented) dance program.”

For Higgins, a three-sport athlete, physical education classes also emphasize movement. Higgins enjoyed physical education classes when she was in middle school and high school. But she remembers doing a lot of standing around between attempts on the gym equipment or turns at bat on the ball field. As a PE teacher, she has wholeheartedly embraced the shift from competition to cooperation and from learning how to play a given sport to learning about how to get and stay fit for life.

Like most of today’s physical education teachers, she is trying to mold “physically literate” students and lifelong “physical activists.”

“We play games that get them moving but that also help them learn about how their bodies work through play,” says Higgins. “We try not to repeat things from year to year.”

Higgins’ curriculum scaffolds the skills that students need to become more active and more knowledgeable about their bodies and the way to build fitness. Her fifth-and sixth-grade curricula teach students about target heart rates, as well as the importance of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility, and how to achieve their goals in each area.

Seventh-graders learn about team sports in a coed setting that emphasizes cooperation, while eighth-graders learn and practice such pursuits as archery, tennis and golf (with some Zumba and karate thrown in for good measure).

Higgins also has mobilized the whole school to be more fitness conscious through such things as Fitness Fridays and Fitness Fire Drills. Her goal is to get students to think about being physically active for at least 60 minutes a day. Thus, it matters less how well you did something, as opposed to how much you did.

This emphasis on fitness and fun has led to an increased commitment to physical education at Westbrook Middle School. Fifth- and sixth-graders have physical education every day for one quarter of the year, while seventh- and eighth-graders take PE classes nine out of every 10 days for half the year. Higgins says she and her colleagues have noticed that from fifth to eight grade, “more and more kids are reaching the healthy zone” when they undergo fitness testing.

And that’s certainly music to Higgins and her students’ ears.


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A single energy drink could harm heart health for young adults

November 19th, 2015 No comments

Drinking just a single energy drink may raise the risk for cardiovascular events among young, healthy adults. This is according to a new study published in JAMA.

First author Dr. Anna Svatikova, a cardiology fellow at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and colleagues found that young adults who consumed one 16-ounce energy drink showed a rise in blood pressure and an increase in stress hormone responses within 30 minutes, which may raise cardiovascular risk.

The team presented their findings at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015 on Sunday.

Energy drinks – marketed as beverages that can boost physical and mental performance – are growing in popularity, particularly among adolescents and young adults in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), energy drinks are regularly consumed by around 31% of teenagers aged 12-17 and 34% of adults aged 18-24.

But with the rise in energy drink consumption comes an increase in public health concern; the beverages have been linked to a number of severe side effects. A study reported by Medical News Today in 2013, for example, linked energy drinks to altered heart function.

What is more, a 2013 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found the number of emergency department visits in the US involving energy drink consumption more than doubled between 2007-11, from 10,068 visits to 20,783.

Caffeine is believed to be the most harmful ingredient in energy drinks; a single can or bottle contains anything from around 80 mg of caffeine to more than 500 mg. For comparison, a 500 mg cup of coffee contains an average of 100 mg of caffeine.

Energy drinks also have a high sugar content and may contain other plant-based stimulants that produce side effects comparable to those of caffeine.

Energy drink vs. sham drink

For their study, Dr. Svatikova and colleagues set out to investigate how energy drinks affected the blood pressure, heart rate and stress responses of 25 healthy adults, compared with a placebo drink.

Participants were an average age of 29 and had no known cardiovascular risk factors.

On 2 separate days, a maximum of 2 weeks apart, subjects were asked to consume either one commercially available 16-ounce (480 ml) energy drink or a sham drink within 5 minutes.

The energy drink contained around 240 mg of caffeine, 2,000 mg of taurine – an amino acid believed to aid neurological development and regulate water and mineral levels in the blood – and extracts of guarana seed,ginseng root and milk thistle.

The sham drink had the same taste, texture, color and nutritional components of the energy drink, but it lacked caffeine and other stimulants.

The study was double-blind, so neither the participants nor the researchers knew which drinks participants were consuming on which day. Participants were asked to refrain from drinking alcohol or caffeine in the 24 hours before each study day.

Before and 30 minutes after each drink was consumed, the researchers measured participants’ blood pressure, heart rate, blood caffeine levels and blood glucose levels, as well as the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine, or noradrenaline, increases blood pressure, affects the heart’s ability to contract and alters heart rate and breathing in response to stress.

71% rise in norepinephrine levels after energy drink consumption

The researchers identified a significant increase in caffeine levels after participants consumed the energy drink, while the sham drink did not affect caffeine levels.

After energy drink consumption, participants experienced a 6.2% rise in systolic blood pressure and a 6.8% rise in diastolic blood pressure. The average rise in blood pressure among participants was 6.4% following energy drink consumption, while an average 3% rise in blood pressure was found after consumption of the sham drink.

What is more, the team found norepinephrine levels increased from 150 pg/mL (picograms per milliliter) to 250 pg/mL after energy drink consumption, compared with a rise from 140 pg/mL to 179 pg/mL after consumption of the sham drink. This represents a 71% rise in norepinephrine levels after energy drink consumption, compared with a 31% rise after consumption of the sham drink.

The team identified no differences in heart rate after energy drink or sham drink consumption.

Dr. Svatikova believes the team’s findings are a cause for concern, as the increase in blood pressure and stress hormone responses identified after energy drink consumption may “predispose an increased risk of cardiac events – even in healthy people.” She adds:

“These results suggest that people should be cautious when consuming energy drinks due to possible health risks. Asking patients about energy drink consumption should become routine for physicians, particularly when interpreting vital signs in the acute setting.”


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Weight, Exercise May Affect Children’s Thinking Skills

November 5th, 2015 No comments

Kids who participate in dance or sports better able to pay attention and solve problems, research suggests

MONDAY, Nov. 2, 2015 (HealthDay News) — Children’s weight and physical activity levels may affect their thinking and learning skills, a new study suggests.

Researchers studied 45 normal-weight children, aged 7 to 11; 24 of them were active and the rest were not. Children were considered active if they took part in organized activities, such as swimming, gymnastics, soccer or dance for more than an hour a week.

The study also included 45 overweight and inactive children.

As expected, active, normal-weight kids had less body fat and a lower resting heart rate than overweight, inactive children. But the researchers also found that normal-weight active children did better on tests of mental skills — such as planning and paying attention — than their inactive counterparts.

The findings were published online recently in the journal Pediatric Exercise Science.

While the study found an association between physical activity and mental skills in children, it did not find a cause-and-effect relationship.

“Activity made a difference even among normal-weight kids. That verifies that physical activity makes a difference in brain function,” study author Catherine Davis, a clinical health psychologist at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, said in a college news release.

The good news is that children — with the help of families and schools — can boost their physical activity levels, she added.

“If they can cut some of the empty calories out of their diet and pick up the pace on physical activity, they may grow into their weight,” Davis said.

In addition, Davis pointed out that the study focused on weight, but it is likely more accurate to look at the amount of body fat in children. For example, overweight kids in the study had more fat, rather than weighing more because of extra muscle mass.

The investigators suggested that future studies should also include overweight, active children to see if they also gain mental benefits from physical activity, and to learn more about how weight and exercise relate to kids’ brain health.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines how much physical activity children require.

SOURCE: Medical College of Georgia, news release, Oct. 27, 2015

Robert Preidt

Last Updated: Nov 2, 2015

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Physical Activity Keeps The Brain Young; The Brain Regions That Benefit From Exercise

November 2nd, 2015 No comments

Oct 23, 2015 05:47 PM By

Olga Kotelko became famous for competing in track and field competitions well into her 90s, showing that even an elderly person could remain physically and mentally fit through activity. The Canadian loved her consistent workout routine, and researchers were fascinated by the effect it had on her health as she aged. In fact, MRI brain scans showed that exercise had reversed her aging in a way, preventing her brain from shrinking compared to other people her age.

Now, a new study adds more evidence to the notion that exercise keeps your mind young. Published in NeuroImage, the study shows for the first time that physical fitness directly impacts brain activity and function. The researchers examined 60 older Japanese men, and found that those who were more physically fit performed better mentally than those who didn’t exercise.

The participants were all aged 64-75 years old. They were given an exercise test to measure their physical fitness, and another test to measure their selective attention, executive function, and reaction time. The mental test was the “color-word matching Stroop test,” the one in which you must name the color of the words, rather than the words themselves (even though the words spell out the name of colors). During the test, the researchers measured activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) region of the brain — the right side of which is associated with short term memory and word identification as we get older. Left-PFC activity, meanwhile, is typically associated with younger brains.

They also tested blood oxygen concentration in surface blood vessels, which showed activity in the brain’s outer layers. The researchers then compared and contrasted the links between aerobic fitness, reaction time to the color tests, and brain activity. It turns out that higher fitness levels were linked to more left-PFC activity, or the “youthful” brain activity. In other words, fit older people are more likely to use their brains the way they did when they were young, compared to older people seeing a decline in this area.

“One possible explanation suggested by the research is that the volume and integrity of the white matter in the part of brain that links the two sides declines with age,” Professor Hideaki Soya, an author of the study, said in the press release. “There is some evidence to support the theory that fitter adults are able to better maintain this white matter than less fit adults, but further study is needed to confirm this theory.”

While the study is the first to make a direct link between exercise and younger minds, it’s not the first on this subject. In the past, researchers have found that physical activity — done on a consistent, relatively intense level — boosts not only cognitive function, but also reduces stress, improves memory, and protects you from Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. The “runner’s high” you experience after pushing yourself to a sweat is actually a hormone-induced euphoria that protects you against mental illness and depression, and paves the way for you to concentrate better on a day-to-day basis. While exercise may not completely protect the brain from aging or shrinking over time, it will at least slow down the aging process and regenerate brain cells. And it will make you feel better — physically and emotionally — at the same time.

Source: Hyodo K, Dan I, Kyutoku Y, Suwabe K, Byun, Ochi G. The association between aerobic fitness and cognitive function in older men mediated by frontal lateralization. NeuroImage, 2015.


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A Parent Walks Into A PE Teacher Conference…

October 7th, 2015 No comments

By   |   March 17, 2015

Last week, a reader on my Facebook page who is not an educator asked for examples of questions to ask a PE teacher on parents’ night. I was pumped. It’s so important for parents to be health advocates for their child – at home and at school. Picking and choosing some of the following questions might help you learn more about your child’s physical education experience. Yet, the list is far from exhaustive. I could write a separate post related to active transportation and appropriate levels of screen time, for example.

Without further adieu, here are some helpful questions for parents to ask. Beneath each question are additional comments that I felt necessary to include. Feel free to share them on your personal PE blogs if you teach PE and/or with parents far and wide.

What physical skills and skill combinations are being taught and how can I reinforce them at home?

The response will depend on age and development level. It’s important that children are taught the fundamental movements and that they begin to combine the movements in Grades 2-4. During the later elementary years, students should be applying these skill combinations in more complex ways. As much as possible, these skills are taught through authentic (real life settings) practice to increase fun and opportunity to gain skills.

How do you assess students, and how often do you assess them?  

Ideally, you will hear words such as formative daily assessment. Formative assessment is ongoing assessment. It’s used by teachers to give students skill-specific feedback on maintaining or improving skills. Students should always know they are being assessed and should know what the teacher is looking for them to demonstrate.

Are you assessing all learning domains: physical, cognitive, and affective?

Physical education is a class where the whole child is considered and nurtured. This includes not only what they can demonstrate in the physical domain, but also if they know how to transfer the skills and knowledge to their life outside of school. Additionally, skills such as effective collaboration, communication, and risk-taking are taught and assessed in a solid PE program.

Do you teach sports as their own entity or small-sided modified versions of sport?

It is a very traditional mindset to teach adult version of sport in a PE program. It simply doesn’t belong. Too few students have the opportunity to develop skills when this is the case. Instead, students should experience small-side, modified versions of sport. This version could be presented within an instructional model such as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU).

What is your balance of activities that you use to teach skills and understanding between dance, games, gymnastics, and other pursuits?

Individual curriculum will determine mandates around categories of activities, however traditional programs have far too heavy an emphasis on games than the other categories. It is important that students gain skills in a variety of activities to increase their skills as well as increase the likeliness that each student finds an activity that she/he loves.

Is my child positive and effective in collaborating with others? What successes or areas for improvement do you suggest I talk to her/him about related to teamwork?

Collaborating and teamwork are important life skills. Physical activity environments present a unique way to teach these skills. Ask the teacher about these skills as a way to practice or model them within a family unit.

Will students be exposed to skill development on a variety of surfaces (land, snow, ice and water) to best support their physical literacy development? If not, how might the PTO or community support your program so that students gain diverse experiences and are afforded opportunity to get out of the gymnasium?

Physical education isn’t called gym class, or shouldn’t be, anymore, for many reasons. A gymnasium is one space in which PE is taught. But, if only taught in this one space, think about how many skills aren’t taught. Skating, surfing, swimming, snowshoeing, orienteering, geocaching, hiking, biking…the list goes on. If you want to increase skill offerings in your child’s school, see how you might be able to rally up some other parents who can make it happen. I have observed first hand the power of an inspired group of parents at the school level.

If my child is excelling or struggling, how are you differentiating your teaching to meet his/her needs?

We all learn differently and we all bring strengths and weakness to experiences. It’s important to understand how your child’s needs are being met. Ideally, you can share some tips that work for you and gain some insight on what is working well for the teacher. Either way, the child wins.

Do you work classroom teachers to weave classroom content into PE lessons? If so, how so?

I find that teaching PE lessons with classroom content makes classes more relevant to students, and they feel I have superpowers because I know what they are up to when they aren’t on my watch. It’s fun to plan in an interdisciplinary way, and it’s fun to teach in this way. A PE teacher shouldn’t do this in lieu of the PE content, she/he should teach this way in an effort to make learning more meaningful for students.

How are students required to demonstrate that they understand why this content is important? How do they put it into action?

It’s one thing to teach students a skill, it’s another⎯better⎯thing to teach them how to use it in multiple ways and why to use it in multiple ways when they are not in PE class. Empowering students to put understanding into action will only make the world a better place.

I encourage you to make time to visit your child’s PE teacher and to support their physical literacy journey.


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Sitting Is Bad for Children, Too

October 1st, 2015 No comments

Children who sit too much may face adult-size health consequences, according to a new study of healthy young girls. The study found that after a single session of prolonged inactivity, the children developed changes in their blood flow and arteries that, in grown-ups, would signal the start of serious cardiovascular problems.

There is plenty of evidence, of course, that uninterrupted sitting dents the health of adults. Many epidemiological studies have found associations between multiple hours of inactivity and increased risks for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, liver disease, metabolic syndrome and other conditions, including premature death.

Most worrying, these risks remain elevated even if someone regularly exercises but then settles into his or her chair for the rest of the day.

But those studies involved adults. Few experiments have directly examined the effects of sedentary time on young, otherwise healthy bodies, so it has not been clear whether children are affected by sitting too much to the same extent as their parents are.

So for the new study, published this month in Experimental Physiology, Ali McManus, an associate professor of pediatric exercise physiology at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, and her colleagues decided to ask children to sit still.

In general, today’s children are doing plenty of that. One recent large-scale epidemiological study reported that children across the globe sit for about 8.5 hours every day. Another recent study found that activity levels among children dropped precipitously after about age 8 and continue to fall through adolescence, with young people trading movement for sitting.

This decline in activity, the study concluded, is most pronounced among girls.

For those and other reasons, the scientists focused their new study on girls between the ages of 9 and 12.

They recruited nine of them, two of whom were overweight. The others’ weights were normal.

Because the researchers were interested in what happens in the short term while someone sits for hours, they chose to look at vascular function. Past studies in adults had shown that when we sit for hours, the arteries in our legs stop expanding as they should to allow healthy blood flow. Instead, those arteries constrict, impeding blood flow, raising blood pressure and, over time, contributing to the development of cardiovascular disease.

The scientists began by testing baseline arterial function in the nine girls, using ultrasound and blood pressure cuffs. All of the girls had healthy arterial function.

Then half the girls sat in comfortable beanbag chairs in the lab for three uninterrupted hours, playing on iPads and watching movies. If they needed to use the bathroom, a researcher wheeled them there.

The other girls also sat for three hours, but at the start of each hour, they got up and went over to a row of stationary bicycles in the lab and rode them gently for 10 minutes before plopping back onto their beanbags.

Afterward, all of the girls’ arteries were re-examined.

A few days later, the girls all repeated the experiment, but now sitting uninterrupted if they had ridden a bike before, and vice versa.

The results should give pause to any of us who, as parents, beg our kids to keep still.

After the girls had reclined for three uninterrupted hours, their arteries no longer functioned as well as they had at the start. In fact, the girls now showed “a profound reduction in vascular function,” the scientists wrote, with arterial dilation — the normal and healthy widening of blood vessels — falling by as much as 33 percent.

“For perspective,” Dr. McManus said, in adults, a sustained 1 percent decline in vascular function “has been shown to increase cardiovascular disease risk by 13 percent.”

Thankfully, the girls’ arteries returned to normal rapidly, since those who had sat for three uninterrupted hours displayed typical vascular function when they were retested on their return trips to the lab for their second sessions.

Equally encouraging, when the girls broke up their sitting time with easy cycling, they showed no decline at all in vascular function.

“It seems clear from our results that children should not sit for prolonged, uninterrupted periods of time,” Dr. McManus said.

While the girls’ arteries did bounce back from the uninterrupted sitting, “we don’t know what the impacts are of uninterrupted sitting day after day,” she said.

So encourage young people to stand up and move around at least every hour, she says. A stroll around the classroom or living room should help. The girls in the study pedaled “at a very easy level” when they broke up their sitting time with cycling, Dr. McManus said, suggesting that vigorous exercise is not required to keep children’s arteries healthy.

Unfortunately, chairs are as alluring to the young as they are to grown-ups. “I was surprised by how easy it was to get the girls to stay still for three uninterrupted hours,” Dr. McManus said. “We’d expected that they would want to be up and moving around.” But they were content to sit, entertained by movies and iPads.

“It was easier, actually, than I’d hoped,” Dr. McManus said.


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Physical Education In Schools: An Afterthought, But Just As Important As Math Or Science

September 26th, 2015 No comments

Sep 20, 2015 09:00 AM By @AliVenosa

I was 15 years old, staring down at an algebra test I had gotten back moments earlier. It was covered in red marks, telling me that I had failed to correctly utilize the quadratic formula, and that my calculator-less computational skills were not up to par. I was devastated — embarrassed that I had failed so miserably at something that was expected of me.

Thankfully I made a full recovery, and the best part is that after high school, I never had to look at another complicated math problem again. Contrary to what many teachers implied, algebra and calculus are not essential to everyone’s daily life. Neither is reciting the history of the antebellum south, or memorizing a long list of amino acids. For some people, yes, but not all.

All of us do, however, have a very real need for an education in health and fitness. Whether one is a brain surgeon, musician, or financial analyst, they have a body to take care of. Without knowing how to eat right and exercise, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a plethora of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Why is it then that physical education is treated like a second class part of a child’s education?

What’s The Big Deal?

The obesity epidemic in the U.S. is not news. As a country, we’ve been struggling with our weight for years, and we’ve reached the point where an entire third of our population is considered obese. The most harrowing part is that many of these people are children — childhood obesity has more than doubled in the last 30 years, and obesity in adolescents hasquadrupled. Most of the time children are not going to fast food restaurants and buying themselves food, which means that their condition is a result of their environment, their parenting, and their education.

Children spend the majority of their day in school, and it has an undeniable effect on their health. In terms of physical education, the benefits have been demonstrated many times over. In perhaps the most obvious advantage, longer phys ed classes have been shown to reduce the likelihood that a young child will become obese. Not only do the classes give kids a workout during the day, but they expose them to activities and sports that may spark an interest in the child.

The benefits continue even into the long term.

“Students need to be taught how to maintain health in order to strive as adults in the world,” Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified pediatrician and dermatologist, and contributor to the Los Angeles Pediatric Society Newsletter, told Medical Daily in an email. “Schools can provide a safe, supportive environment to learn and practice these healthy habits and lay the groundwork for maintaining a healthy lifestyle into adulthood.”

Physical education, contrary to the beliefs of many, does not harm students by pulling them away from their academics. Often called a waste of time by more academically oriented students and parents, P.E. holds hidden benefits for the brain. Research shows that children who exercise actually get better grades in school, and one study found that kids getting cardiorespiratory exercise had bigger hippocampi, the brain structure associated with both short and long-term memory.

Even other teachers should be grateful kids are getting to the gym during the day, according to Harold Kohl, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas.

“What’s in it for the educators is better academic performance,” he told the Las Vegas Review. “That’s kind of the Holy Grail on this deal, and the evidence is getting pretty strong…mental health benefits, physical health benefits, skeletal health benefits, metabolic benefits.”

There really isn’t much wiggle room for one to dispute the value of physical education, so why is it still a struggle to get kids the classes they need?

An Afterthought, Not A Priority

As I mentioned, many of the subjects taught in schools become irrelevant to kids later in life. They’re all taken seriously though, accepted as an essential part of being an “educated” person. A child’s physical education is often downplayed, pushed aside, or delegitimized through various avenues, the most common of which are defunding and lack of grading.

Currently, there are no federal regulations addressing physical education in schools. The No Child Left Behind Act addressed standardized testing for academic disciplines, and the only thing it really ended up leaving behind was fitness education. Since it’s left up to individual states to decide what its requirements are, many schools have cut funding for phys ed classes in favor of new technology or materials for other courses.

As a result, schools have inadequate programs, and some have none at all. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly half of the high school students surveyed said they had no physical education classes in an average week. In states that allow schools to opt out of physical education, the class becomes optional in the eyes of kids, leading to health and fitness being seen as optional as well.

Some states do require an adequate level of phys ed classes, but this doesn’t mean the program is perfect. The grading systems for many schools are quite standard; think of a report card that lists a number or letter grade for every class. One class often gets left out — surprise, it’s phys ed again.

“There should be formal grading in physical education, just like there is in other core subjects,” Jayne Greenberg, district director of physical education and health literacy for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, told Parents magazine.

She believes phys ed should be graded based on participation, skill level, and written tests, just like everything else.

“Parents need an honest assessment of their child’s abilities — just like they’re getting in math and reading—so they know what needs improvement,” she said.

The grading isn’t so important in the sense of a child knowing whether they’re a racketball all-star or not. It’s important because grades matter to kids. They learn subjects not always because they want to, but because they’re scared of failing a test or class. If the same mentality were applied to phys ed, kids would be forced to actually learn about their health and fitness, rather than just go through the motions.

There has been an outcry from parents over the idea — what if my child simply isn’t good at sports? Well, some kids aren’t good at reading or math or science, but by exercising their brain through practice and homework, they can learn to get through it. Exercising the body isn’t any different.

“Quality physical education programs promote better self-esteem for students,” Virginia Chillari, a physical education teacher from Winslow Township School, N.J., told Medical Dailyin an email. “A student who may not excel in the classroom can have an alternative outlet to shine and be recognized in a positive way.”

Of course, students with physical disabilities would be provided alternative ways to make their grade, just as cognitive or learning disabilities are taken into consideration in academic classes.

“It is important to note that physical education teachers can teach all learners using many different styles,” Chillari said. “We use visual concepts through demonstration, auditory concepts through music and language, and physical concepts through participation.”

Chillari also noted that grading in classes helps support teachers as well as students, reinforcing that what they do is “legitimate.”

It’s time for everyone to recognize just that, and accept that physical education is an important, if not the most important component of a child’s education. Taking care of the body is not optional in life, so it shouldn’t be optional during school. Besides, if we’re too busy getting treatment for heart disease or struggling with obesity, how are we supposed to find time to use that quadratic formula?


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To Thrive, Many Young Female Athletes Need A Lot More Food

September 22nd, 2015 No comments

Participation in sports by girls and young women has soared in recent decades — by 560 percent among high school students since 1972, and 990 percent among college students, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Highly committed young female athletes now run track and play soccer, basketball, water polo and other demanding sports that require strong bodies.

But many girls aren’t eating enough to satisfy the physical demands of those sports, scientists say, and that’s putting them at risk for health problems that can last a lifetime.

These athletes are essentially malnourished. The danger they face is called female athlete triad syndrome because it typically includes three symptoms: irregular menstrual cycles, low energy and low bone density.

Doctors once looked for this constellation of symptoms only among “anorexic, very skinny” young women, says orthopedic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, chief of Women’s Sports Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

But experience has since shown, she says, that “these athletes can come in any shape, form or weight. It’s not just that typical ballerina physique that we’re looking out for anymore.”

Unfortunately, she says, many primary care doctors still don’t recognize the syndrome and most of these athletes don’t know they’re at risk. Take Regan Detweiler, a University of Michigan sophomore. She ran track and cross country in high school, and used to train all year long — running, on average, 35 to 40 miles a week, she says.

Detweiler also adhered to a rigid, low-carb diet — she says she had a “very unhealthy relationship” with carbohydrates.

Breakfast for her in those days was coffee and a cup of yogurt. Lunch was a peanut butter sandwich, minus the crust.

“I was eating as little of that peanut butter sandwich as I could possibly eat,” she says, “while still saying I had a sandwich for lunch.” Dinner was a small serving of meat and vegetables.

Detweiler says she was hungry pretty much all the time, and often felt tired in the middle of the day. She menstruated only once every six months or so.

Then, during her sophomore year in high school, Detweiler suffered a stress fracture in her right shin. She took a month off running and wore a protective boot. But during her junior year, she suffered another stress fracture — this time in her left shin. Suspecting weakness in the bone, doctors ordered a density scan.

The results were worrisome. Detweiler says the doctors told her she was on the “very lowest end of having a normal bone density.” The diagnosis: female athlete triad syndrome.

Matzkin says anytime a young female athlete comes to her office with shin splits or fractures, she now asks about nutrition and menstruation.

“We may be able to identify the root cause of bone mineral density problems,” she says, and patients can be helped early to chart a new course in eating.

It’s not just about eating enough, Matzkin says. It’s also about eating the right things — like fruits, vegetables, protein and foods rich in calcium and vitamin D. It’s critical to build bone when you can, she says, because there’s literally a countdown to how long women have to build strong bones.

“We can only really build it up to about age 25,” she says. After that, because of hormonal changes, women in particular lose bone density bit by bit every year.

“If you can start at a higher level,” she says, “then you’re going to do better.”

Young athletes like Detweiler, who have already lost bone density, can rebuild some bone, Matzkin says. But “they’ll never get back to where they might have been.”

Today, Detweiler is 19 years old and eats a healthy diet. She credits Jessica Buschmann, a registered dietitian at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for helping her achieve that.

Buschmann says many of the athletes referred to her train for hours a day, every day. As a result, she says, it’s not uncommon for these young athletes to need as much as 3,500 calories a day — which can seem scarily high to a teenage girl worried about body image.

And that, Buschmann says, is her challenge: to convince these girls that eating too few calories puts the body at risk. She tells them she’ll say the word “calorie” only once and then switch to other words like “energy” or “fuel.”

“That’s truly what it is,” she says — energy for your muscles and brain to make sure you’re physically and mentally strong enough, and have enough stamina to optimize workouts and training.

Detweiler embraced Buschmann’s diet plan of increased calories: three solid meals a day plus three snacks. She still enjoys peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, she says — but now she eats the bread crusts, too.

She soon started menstruating regularly. Her latest bone density scan also shows improvement.

Best of all, Detweiler says, after starting on Buschmann’s regimen, she started feeling better than ever — and had her most successful track season ever, too.


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The Best Way to Cheer for Your Child

September 10th, 2015 No comments

Is there anything a parent can do from the sidelines to help a child play a better game?

Updated Aug. 25, 2015 2:52 p.m. ET

We’ve all read about parents who yell and get into fights at their children’s games. But how are parents supposed to behave on the sidelines? What type of cheering helps? What adds pressure? Is coaching from the sidelines ever OK?

Here are some ground rules.

Being a spectator is tough. Watching a child struggle can unleash parents’ competitiveness, or rekindle the pride or pain they once felt when playing sports in their youth. Many of the soccer, football, hockey and other programs starting up again this fall are costly and time-consuming, making it harder to stay calm if your child doesn’t try hard or a coach seems misguided.

Coaches say it is best for parents to set aside emotion and ego, watch the game closely, avoid shouting criticism or instructions from the sidelines and cheer for the whole team, not just their own child.

Kimberly Atnip of Wardsville, Mo., gets excited when she watches her three sons, ages 7, 9 and 14, play football. “It’s intense. Nobody likes to lose,” she says. However, she yells only positive encouragement from the sidelines, she says. “If a kid makes a mistake, you don’t need to call it out.”

She uses self-talk to stay calm. If her son doesn’t seem to be trying hard, she tells herself, “I don’t have fire and drive every day at my work either.” If the team falters, she thinks, “These are 14-year-old kids. They’re not going to play in the NFL.” She directs her sons toward other goals—bonding with teammates, learning to take coaching well and stretching their physical limits.

If other parents on her team lose control and start screaming, she tells them softly, “Calm down. It’s just a ballgame.” Other times, she says, she gets up and walks away. “It’s a reflection on the whole team when one parent is loud and obnoxious.”

Children and teens are embarrassed when parents yell or single out their own child with loud cheers, according to a 2011 study of 57 players ages 7 to 14 published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Even seemingly encouraging cheers, such as “Come on, you can do it!” can imply criticism to players that they’re not doing their best, says the study, led by Jens Omli, an instructor of kinesiology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Children often connect parents’ attitude about their sports performance to their value as a person, says Bruce E. Brown, a teacher, coach and director of Proactive Coaching, a training firm in Camano Island, Wash. They think parents who yell instructions from the sidelines believe children can’t figure out what to do on their own, Mr. Brown says. Hurling insults at the ref teaches children it is OK to challenge authority.

Criticizing a child’s teammate suggests it is OK for a child to dump on teammates too. Some 23% of 400 sports parents surveyed in 2013 by i9 Sports, Riverview, Fla., a youth-sports league franchiser, said they or their children had been excluded socially because the kids weren’t as good as other players.

Self-control is tough for parents who “are confused about what the goal is” in youth sports, says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance in Mountain View, Calif., a nonprofit that trains 100,000 coaches a year. “The goal is to develop better athletes and better people, and trying to win is part of that,” he says. “If your definition of success is that your kid’s team wins and your kid plays fantastically, you’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time.”

In the stands, Mr. Thompson adds, “no sports parent has a totally positive experience. And most parents don’t feel like they have any power, any control.”

Many parents get angry because they think their children are being treated unfairly or carelessly by officials, coaches or other players, according to another study led by Mr. Omli, a survey of 773 parents published in 2012 in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.

Others erupt with unresolved frustration or anger over their own childhood sports experiences, says Luis Fernando Llosa, co-author of “Beyond Winning,” a 2013 book on improving the experience of youth sports. A man who hated the pressure he faced as a child from a hypercompetitive father might unwittingly pressure his son in the same ways, because that is the behavior he knows. Mr. Llosa advises parents to recall their own “sports biographies” and think about what parts are worth passing on.

Parents can stay productively occupied on the sidelines by watching the game closely and making mental notes on signs that their child or the team is improving, Mr. Llosa says. Notice even subtle successes, such as getting up quickly after a fall to help defend the goal, he says. This “mental highlight reel” can provide fodder for conversations later. Coaches also recommend doing progressive muscle-relaxation exercises on the sidelines or counting backward from 100.

The quality of coaching is a hot button. More than 80% of 1,511 parents surveyed last year by ESPN and Aspen Institute Project Play, a research and advocacy group, worry about the competence or behavior of their children’s coaches.

Parents who react by coaching from the sidelines only confuse their children. Longtime coach John Engh tried to teach a 6-year-old boy to stop hitting the baseball toward left field by telling him: “Don’t think of anything else while you’re swinging but stepping toward the pitcher,” says Mr. Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a West Palm Beach, Fla., nonprofit that trains more than 100,000 coaches a year. When the child came to bat, however, his father yelled from the stands: “Keep your eye on the ball.” The boy forgot everything Mr. Engh said, and hit to left again.

Frustrations over whether a coach is giving your child enough playing time are common. Parents should look for a program that matches their philosophy. Some promise ample or equal playing time for all. Still, coaches sometimes bend the rules to win.

No matter how frustrated parents become, they should avoid criticizing a coach in front of their children. Longtime youth coach Edward Garcia was annoyed two years ago when two angry parents confronted him just as he got up from the bench after a middle-school basketball game, complaining that a player wasn’t passing the ball enough to their daughter. Hurrying to complete his coaching duties, Mr. Garcia, of Henderson, Nev., deflected their anger by saying he was working on passing during practices.

Many programs ask parents to wait 24 hours after a game before complaining to a coach, to let emotions cool. This is often part of a pledge parents are asked to sign. Examples can be found at and

Preteens should start learning to advocate for themselves. Matt Herr, who coached prep-school hockey for seven years, often got emails from parents that began, “Don’t tell my son that I’m contacting you,” says Mr. Herr, a former pro hockey player and a former player-development manager with USA Hockey, the sport’s U.S. governing body. His response: “Talk to your child, and please have him come to see me, too.”

Parents can monitor their own behavior by asking themselves what their child would see if he looked up at them in the stands, Mr. Brown says: “Would he draw confidence, assurance and poise from what he saw?”

Tracy Kistemaker of Strongsville, Ohio, agonized when watching her 11-year-old son Dylan’s basketball games two years ago. Dylan was trying hard, but he seldom got the ball, because the coach allowed four other players to dominate play.

Ms. Kistemaker knew her son was devastated, but she kept a positive expression on her face. “Children feed off your emotions,” she says. She did deep-breathing exercises to stay relaxed. “Lamaze might be good for childbirth, but it’s even better after you have your children,” she says.

She wanted Dylan to learn to hang in there in tough situations. After the coach didn’t respond to her two email requests to meet and discuss the problem, however, she and Dylan’s dad let him quit the team. Now 13, Dylan is doing well in soccer and track.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at


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Even Short Bouts of Activity May Help Kids’ Health

September 3rd, 2015 No comments

Three minutes every half hour for three hours lowered blood sugar levels, study says

THURSDAY, Aug. 27, 2015 (HealthDay News) — Even brief spurts of exercise may benefit children, researchers report.

Their study of 28 healthy, normal-weight children found that doing three minutes of moderate-intensity walking every half hour over three hours of sitting led to lower levels of blood sugar and insulin, compared to another day when the children sat for three hours straight.

On the day the children took brief walks, they did not eat any more at lunch than on the day they remained seated for the entire three hours, according to the study published online Aug. 27 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

The findings suggest that brief bouts of activity during otherwise inactive periods could help protect children against type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the U.S. National Institutes of Health researchers said.

“We know that 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity benefits children’s health,” study senior author Dr. Jack Yanovski, chief of the section on growth and obesity at the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a government news release.

“It can be difficult to fit longer stretches of physical activity into the day. Our study indicates that even small activity breaks could have a substantial impact on children’s long-term health,” he added.

American children spend about six hours a day either sitting or reclining, the researchers said. Previous studies have linked such inactivity to obesity and insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, the researchers explained.

“Sustained sedentary behavior after a meal diminishes the muscles’ ability to help clear sugar from the bloodstream,” study first author Britni Belcher, a cancer prevention fellow at the U.S. National Cancer Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, said in the news release.

“That forces the body to produce more insulin, which may increase the risk for beta cell dysfunction that can lead to the onset of type 2 diabetes. Our findings suggest even short activity breaks can help overcome these negative effects, at least in the short term,” Belcher explained.

More than one-third of American children and teens are overweight or obese, which increases their risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and cancer.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about children and physical activity.

SOURCE: U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, news release, Aug. 27, 2015

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