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For many adults, one of the most enduring memories of growing up is the humiliation of PE class. Being among the last picked for basketball or stalling out halfway up the rope climb shattered self-confidence and self-esteem. Not being able to complete push ups or coming in near last in the mile run invited taunts and teasing.

“A lot of people were turned off to exercise and fitness at a young age,” says Ken Reed, director for the Center for the Advancement of Physical Education, part of PE4Life, a Kansas City, Missouri organization that promotes youth fitness. “Unfortunately, we are seeing the repercussions in obesity rates and an overall lack of fitness.”

Add to this budget cutbacks for PE programs over the last decade—as schools have pushed academics—combined with kids spending more time at the computer and television, and it isn’t difficult to understand why so many people are so out of shape. “Too many school districts have refocused on the head rather than the whole child,” says George Graham, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State University and past president of The National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11 and 14 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19 were overweight in 1999. Childhood obesity has nearly doubled for adolescents in the past 2 decades—leading to Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and an array of other ailments. Moreover, 70 percent of overweight adolescents become overweight or obese adults.

It’s a weighty problem. But now some organizations and schools are leaping into action. They’re taking another look at physical education classes and reinventing them to emphasize fun and fitness. “People are realizing that the old model, which emphasized competition, wasn’t successful. It is essential to get kids involved in some vigorous physical activity every day,” Reed says.

Dancing, juggling, fencing, indoor rock climbing, unicycle riding, yoga, and cycling are just a few of the activities gaining in popularity at schools across the U.S. In many cases, the goal is to teach skills rather than sports; teamwork rather than competition. For example, at Kamehameha School in Maui, Hawaii, youngsters engage in intense rope jumping, croquet, Frisbee and orienteering. At Verde Elementary School in Boca Raton, Florida, urban hiking is part of curriculum.

In some instances, physical education instructors are turning to heart rate monitors instead of stop watches. For example, in Naperville, Illinois, Madison Junior High School now uses heart rate monitors to measure the intensity level of exercise. In 1988, physical education instructor Phil Lawler measured a young girl’s performance in a mile run. She walked and ran the distance in 12 minutes, which most observers would consider a failure. However, her heart rate reached 187 beats per minute—which indicated that she was exerting maximum effort.

That caused Lawler and others to rethink the traditional concept of physical education and performance. Today, he has kids grab a heart rate monitor when they begin class and they track performance over days, weeks and months using PDAs and special software. Teachers grade students on their individual effort level and improvement and kids receive charts and printouts.

Programs such as Naperville’s empower young people to lead healthier lives,” Reed explains. He notes that a growing number of school districts are also introducing variations of team sports to reduce idle time and ensure that all participants remain active. Instead of putting a group of kids in a game of 11 on 11 football, they’re paring the numbers down to 3 or 4 players per team and altering the rules to make the games faster paced and more enjoyable.

One example of the changing mindset is “Navy” football. There’s no scrimmage line or quarterback, and teams consist of only three to five players. Participants advance the ball by tossing it to another teammate. When a player drops a ball the other team gains possession and goes the other way. When a player is tagged by an opponent, he or she must pass the ball. The action is ongoing and the excitement level usually reaches a fevered pitch.

According to some recent studies, one of the advantages of vigorous exercise is that it helps students relax and learn better. In Naperville, for instance, students typically take their most difficult academic class right after PE. Equally important: when students recognize the importance of fitness and find ways to make it fun and rewarding, they are more likely to engage in exercise their entire life.

Says Graham: “There is a physical education revolution going on and it is having a positive impact on fitness. The more enjoyable and positive the experience, the greater the odds that a person will stay fit for life.”

Pat F. Bass III, MD, MS, MPH is a board certified general internist and general pediatrician and an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at Louisiana State University Health Science Center- Shreveport in Shreveport, LA.

George Graham
Professor of Kinesiology
Penn State University
University Park, PA
Past President
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education
Phone: 814-404-1969
E-mail: ggraham@psu.edu

Ken Reed, EDD
Director
Center for Center for Advancement of Physical Education
PE4Life
Phone: 303-972-6839
E-mail: kenreed@pe4life.org
He is based in Denver/Org is based in Kansas City, MO

George Graham
Professor of Kinesiology
Penn State University
University Park, PA
Past President
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education
Phone: 814-404-1969
E-mail: ggraham@psu.edu

Ken Reed, EDD
Director
Center for Center for Advancement of Physical Education
PE4Life
Phone: 303-972-6839
E-mail: kenreed@pe4life.org
He is based in Denver/Org is based in Kansas City, MO