PE will get kids moving again.
Over the past 30 years, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating have been so rapidly incorporated and engineered into the American lifestyle that obesity now threatens to pass tobacco as the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the Unites States.
Although some unsympathetically see the epidemic as solely the consequence of individual choice, gluttony or laziness, public health experts offer more sensible explanations: the near-elimination of the family meal; the upsurge in consumption of both fast food and seductive, addictive passive entertainment; growth of neighborhoods whose design discourages biking and walking; the super-sizing of portions; the rise of soda and sugary beverage consumption; and the trend towards gradual disappearance of physical education classes in schools.
The forces behind these changes, often hard to identify, have altered patterns of physical activity and nutrition in such a way as to make the healthier choices for American families difficult. The Institute of Medicine has written, `It is unreasonable to expect that people will change when so many forces in their social, cultural and physical environments conspire against such change.'
To what kinds of `forces' is the institute referring? In the case of school PE, the force was funding cuts, which in turn led to a policy decision to decrease PE time. This exemplifies how policy affects nutrition and physical activity - and, ultimately, kids' health.
At the exact time that schools, owing to a series of sociological changes (such as a reduction in informal, neighborhood sports and recreation), are playing ever-increasing roles in students' physical activity and nutrition environments, funding cuts have led to less - or, in some cases, no - PE. These changes, sadly enough, occur in the midst of an obesity epidemic.
The Oregon Health Policy Commission's Child Obesity Work Group, comprised of researchers and health care practitioners, was charged with the job of making policy recommendations to help Oregon stem the epidemic of childhood obesity. After months of study, the establishment of minimum PE requirements emerged as one of the three highest priority recommendations. In Lane County, for example, 37 percent of children in kindergarten through eighth grade are obese or at risk for obesity. Given the scope of the obesity problem, it makes no sense that an estimated 60 percent of kids in Oregon do not get daily PE.
The Oregon Senate now is debating three bills that would reverse this trend. Senate Bill 370 mandates a weekly minimum amount of PE time. Two companion bills, SB 367 and SB 372, would authorize an inventory to collect data about compliance and direct the state Department of Education to develop an assessment of PE quality.
This package of bills exemplifies the kind of commonsense but bold moves that will be necessary for us to make inroads against this epidemic.
These changes come at some cost. To support the bill, one has to buy in to the concept that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. According to one study from the International Council on Sports Science and Physical Education, each dollar invested in PE saves $3.20 in later health care costs.
In light of what we know about the obesity epidemic and its causes, we, and our legislators, have a choice: We can choose to pay for programs that promote physical activity and nutrition, or we can pay a great deal more for the health care costs of a generation that will, in their 20s and 30s, experience high rates of Type II diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
PE also has tremendous educational benefits: Fit, active kids learn and behave better - an immense benefit that cannot be measured in dollars.
The bills' authors intend that funds will be budgeted by the joint legislative Ways and Means Committee: This is a funded policy reform, not an unfunded mandate leaving school districts with the unenviable burden of shifting support to PE by cutting yet another program.
Based on what we know about this epidemic, it seems clear that a strategy that reduces the prevalence of childhood obesity will pay dividends in the long run. These three bills are an excellent place to start.
Jimmy Unger of Eugene is a pediatrician and chairman of the Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth, Lane County's childhood obesity prevention coalition.