Why Chicago Schools Brought Back Gym

Rising childhood-obesity rates spur officials to restore physical education.

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When Kyler Sumter was a student at Edgar Allan Poe Classical Elementary on Chicago's South Side, it was one of the few schools in the city's sprawling system to offer physical education classes.

During classes, Kyler would do situps, pushups and jumping jacks and play traditional relay games like dodgeball and steal the bacon, she recalled recently. She also learned to play tennis, soccer and basketball, among other team sports.

"Elementary school was great because I think kids need exercise," said Kyler, 14, who is now a high school freshman at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective-enrollment school on the South Side, where she also has PE classes. "Besides that, it helps with stress and obesity. We are supposed to get an hour of physical activity a day. Without gym, I don't know how many kids actually get daily exercise."

Since 1997, most of the city's 675 schools have waived the physical education requirement for many of its 405,000 students because of budget shortfalls.

But Chicago Public Schools plans to reinstate a physical education requirement for all high school juniors and seniors for the 2013-14 school year, said Frank Shuftan, a district spokesman. Recess will also return for all elementary schools next fall. He said that the vast majority of the system's students would benefit from the physical education reinstatement.

The move is part of a plan by CPS to extend the school day for year-round schooling. Still, some Chicago schools were recently celebrated for their strong physical education programs. Last year 14 schools were honored at a White House reception for creating healthier school environments by promoting good nutrition and physical activity, according to the Chicago Tribune. An additional five schools received certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge, which is part of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity.

"Chicago Public Schools strongly believes that physical activity is a critical component to a child's overall wellness," Shuftan told The Root in a prepared statement, "which ultimately relates to their ability to perform in the classroom and leads to academic success."

Most kids get little to no exercise at school these days, and parents feel that there should be more physical education in schools, particularly to help fight obesity, according to experts such as Paula Keyes Kun, senior director of communications for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children ages 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents ages 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period. More than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, the data show.

The data are even more startling for African-American children, who were 30 percent as likely as non-Hispanic white children to be overweight in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. The immediate and long-term health effects can be devastating, including cardiovascular conditions such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure; prediabetes; bone and joint problems; and sleep apnea.

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