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Sports for Life

Physical education classes incorporate alternative activities for students to lead healthier lives.
John Jay High School students at the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District use a flexible grid to help increase their cardio workout and strengthen their core muscles.

When Saul Lerner became director of physical education, athletics and health for the Bellmore-Merrick (N.Y.) School District 14 years ago, football, soccer, basketball and floor hockey were the staples of most physical education classes on Long Island and around the rest of the country. "The emphasis was on sports you would watch on TV. That was the mindset of physical educators," Lerner explains.

But mindset has begun to change—spurred by students' reduced appetite for team-oriented sports, their increased appetite for junk food, and their shifting redefinition of "activity" to mean surfing the Web and running their fingers over the message pads of mobile phones.

There don't appear to be any statistics that prove fewer students are interested in team-oriented sports, but anecdotally, physical education and wellness directors indicate that they're seeing more kids drawn to activities other than conventional sports. "Fewer and fewer kids today are playing sports, and more are obese," Lerner says. "Kids have great thumbs now but can't run three steps."

The fact that our nation's youth are in worse shape now than a generation ago is widely known. A landmark study in 2007 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that almost 17 percent of American children ages 6 to 19 were obese, triple the number from 1980, although a subsequent report released last July found that the percentage of obese youngsters and teens had dipped slightly to just below 15 percent. Lerner and his district have responded with plenty of steps of their own, turning the conventional definition of phys ed on its head.

Nowadays students at Bellmore-Merrick's three high schools and one of the district's middle schools take classes in everything from Pilates to step aerobics, clamber up and down climbing walls, go cycling, and lately have taken to skateboarding in school—activities available as electives to satisfy New York state's weekly two-hour physical education requirement.

The Long Haul

"There are so many kids today interested in being physically active but not interested in competitive sports, and there's a recognition that our job in physical education is to motivate all kids to be physically active for a lifetime," notes Steve Jeffries, who directs the graduate program in physical education at Central Washington University and serves as president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).

Jeffries is leading by example, having added an outdoor class to the CWU graduate curriculum focused on rock climbing, hiking, inline skating and even juggling. The university has run a physical education Summer Camp for the past 20 years, from which children around Washington state attend.

In addition, when most student athletes leave high school, they don't return to playing team sports elsewhere. "Ninety-seven percent of our athletes will complete their athletics when they graduate high school," adds Chris McCarthy, who created a health club for students at the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District and is a big proponent of alternative sports and fitness.

Of course, students in the Bellmore-Merrick district reporting for physical education class can still choose from an assortment of more traditional sports. But Lerner is hoping that more students choose activities that will last them a lifetime. "An adult basketball league usually requires 20 players and a gym," he points out. "But when it comes to cycling, you can do it when you want to." Lerner, who played basketball himself in high school, knows from personal experience. "With four kids, it's a constant struggle at my stage of life to say, 'I'm going to play basketball.' I can cycle when they're sleeping. In physical education classes, the winners are the kids who continue to do things."

Jeffries adds that the potential benefits to students' academic performance are large. "There's more and more evidence that working out and staying in shape makes you perform better in other areas," Jeffries suggests.

Among the growing body of research, a 2006 study of fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-grade students in California found that those who had met six fitness criteria— from aerobic capacity to body mass index—scored more than 40 percent higher on standardized math and reading tests than classmates who had met none of the criteria.

Finding Funding

In Katonah-Lewisboro, McCarthy—in his first year as the district's director of health, physical education, athletics and wellness—aims to replicate the physical education program he had developed over the past decade for high school students in nearby Rye Neck (N.Y.) Union Free School District. "One of the main concepts is creating a health club within a school, in which we educate kids on how to assess what they're doing to meet their goals," he explains.

John Jay High School students in the Katonah-Lewisboro district play badminton in the gym. It?s among various P.E. classes the students take as a sport they can use for life.

The elements of that health club include stationary bikes, treadmills and weights, along with circuit training and employing heart monitors to measure students' progress. "We take data of what's actually taking place in their exercise," he says. "It's really training with a purpose," he emphasizes. "At Rye Neck, we went from a scenario of severely limited participation of students in phys ed electives to where the superintendent was so impressed with the level of student participation that he said, 'I don't believe what I'm seeing.'"

But highly affluent Rye Neck can afford such high-tech "clubs" in its schools. The 20 bikes for the spinning class cost close to $1,000 each, and installing an indoor adventure course—consisting of climbing walls and an assortment of beams and other equipment for students to balance on— exceeded $50,000. "Fortunately, I had a lot of support within the district," McCarthy says, noting that in Katonah-Lewisboro his budget is more limited than at Rye Neck. He has turned instead to the high school's booster club to finance the first phase of a weight room, training programs and monitoring equipment, but the spinning and adventure courses will have to wait until he can find a way to secure the necessary funding.

Back in Long Island, Lerner also has found an administration willing and able to support his expansion of alternative physical education, including the addition of skateboarding. It cost thousands for the physical education instructor to train at a skateboarding facility in Boulder, Colo., and more than $100 each for boards that won't scuff the gym floors on which students practice new techniques.

The urban Roanoke (Va.) City Public Schools offers fishing as part of its physical education curriculum. The district has reeled in a $3,225 grant from the Future Fisherman Foundation, which allowed two physical education teachers—from William Fleming and Patrick Henry high schools, football and basketball stalwarts in that part of the state—to take a one-week summer seminar in Michigan on teaching fishing and then take several field trips with their students during the school year to Virginia's ponds and lakes.

Going to the Mat

In more than 100 public schools in Minnesota, physical education teachers are discovering an ancient ritual to promote lifelong physical activity. These teachers have been certified to teach yoga to elementary, middle and high school students.

Students at the Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis take yoga classes, which help them find their inner voice.

For the past three years, Rochelle Patten has begun her biweekly physical education classes at the Susan B. Anthony Middle School in the Minneapolis Public Schools with 20 minutes of yoga instruction. And while Patten says her students are quick to learn that yoga provides a real workout, they are also absorbing some of the more meditative aspects of the practice, including grounding, stillness and listening. "I just feel that children have a hard time focusing and that they find a lot of anxiety in daily life," much of it generated from high expectations to perform at school, says Patten, who earned her certification through a six-month online course from Yoga Calm, an educational organization based in Portland, Ore.

Although physical education is not required for Minnesota's seventh- and eighth-graders, Patten notes that 400 of her school's 600 students sign up for her classes each year. "My kids have really bought into it," she continues. Patten says that practicing yoga will pay short- and long-term benefits to those students. "The research has shown that kids who practice yoga or meditation perform better in class," she says, pointing to a 2003 study of yoga classes at the Los Angeles' inner-city Accelerated School, where participating students also raised their GPAs. "But I also hope that later in life they will have the skills to slow things down."

An Uphill Climb

Lerner says the idea of alternative phys ed activities is no longer revolutionary, and a number of neighboring schools now offer everything from kickboxing to hip-hop dancing. But programs like Bellmore- Merrick's and Rye Neck's are proving more the exception than the rule, in large part because of the price tag. "It's very tough to change a program in a district where your P.E. budget is $1 a kid, especially when you're dependent on equipment and facilities," observes Jeffries.

Some students ride bicycles in P.E. class at the Bellmore- Merrick (N.Y.) School District.

Once started, Jeffries says, alternative programs need committed advocates to keep them going. Besides advocating for alternative physical education, Jeffries notes that physical education classes can draw more students into traditional team sports because those with marginal playing abilities get to play in class. "Over the years, there's been too much emphasis on the higher skills," Jeffries admits.

Bane McCracken, the founder of a physical education program that had students at Cabell-Midland High School in the Cabell County (W.Va.) Schools walk, hike and ride bicycles, still prefers an approach that goes beyond computer-led exercise classes and the traditional playing field. "There are some great programs going on, but there are still a lot of schools that haven't caught on yet," laments McCracken, who is no longer at the district. "There's a big disconnect from what we should be doing and what we are doing."

The greatest hope for the continued growth of such alternatives, McCracken and other proponents agree, lies in changing the prevailing mindset of physical education departments and finding the funding to pay for new programs.