Fit For Life

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On a Monday morning in early November, fitness fanatics, connected to computers featuring personalized workout data, pedal on stationary bikes. Nearby, several people scale a rock-climbing wall. All wear heart monitors on their wrists and gold-and-black T shirts bearing the logo of their facility, the Madison Health Club. As one biker gets caught up in watching the presidential candidates duke it out on TV, her heart-rate monitor starts beeping. "Oops," she says, embarrassed to draw the attention of her teacher. "That means I'm out of my target zone."

Most fitness centers, of course, don't require members to wear heart-rate monitors to gauge how well they're staying "in the zone," but these exercisers are only 13 years old and are taking part in their daily physical-education class at Madison Junior High in Naperville, Ill. The Health Club, adjacent to the gymnasium, is the center of the school's PE program.

To baby boomers, many of whom are haunted by memories of militaristic coaches or being picked last for kickball, a relaxed PE class is an oxymoron. Their children, though, are beginning to benefit from a "New PE" movement that is taking hold in hundreds of school districts across the country. Naperville, which has been cited by the Centers for Disease Control, is a national model. Unlike the old, often dreaded gym class, with its focus on team sports, New PE stresses lifetime fitness. "The old model attended to skills many kids won't be using as adults--and it has left many on the sidelines," says Phil Lawler, founder of the Naperville program. "We're enabling each kid to maintain a fit lifestyle forever. It's really preventive health care."

That idea has struck a chord with some high-profile advocates. Last year Jim Baugh, CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods, raised $1 million from fellow manufacturers and spearheaded PE4Life, a national organization dedicated to promoting PE. A bill sponsored by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens that would provide $400 billion in funding for innovative PE programs is currently awaiting passage in Congress. And last summer President Clinton called on the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to produce a report on ways to address youth inactivity. The document--the first of its kind--is due to be released before the end of the year.

Why the escalating attention? For starters, PE class has become practically invisible over the past decade--even as American kids have become alarmingly obese. In 1991, 42% of high school kids participated in daily PE. Now only 25% do. Less than a quarter of all children get 20 minutes of vigorous exercise a day; 25% of all students don't get any PE. Only seven states require elementary PE teachers to be certified; three don't require PE at all. Georgia, the state with the highest rate of increase in obesity in the past 10 years, voted last summer to give middle schools the option of reducing PE. Only Illinois requires daily PE for grades K through 12--and even there, schools are getting around the requirement with waivers that allow students to substitute activities like school band for PE.

Unfortunately, the case for PE has never been more pressing. For countless reasons--bad diet, excessive time spent at computers and even safety concerns about playing outdoors--kids are more sedentary than ever. The number of obese kids ages six to 17 has doubled in the past 30 years. For the first time, Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes is being diagnosed in kids, and it now accounts for 1 of every 3 newly diagnosed juvenile diabetics. Physical confidence has been proved to be critical to self-esteem for youths, especially preadolescent girls. And researchers say the price tag for medical care for obesity-related diseases, about $100 billion a year, may get steeper. "You are more likely to be an obese adult if you're obese as a kid," says David Ludwig, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Hospital in Boston. "And if you're a sedentary child, you're more likely to be a sedentary adult."

New-PE enthusiasts feel their approach is the best hope for the future, and it's easy to see why. Teachers don't discourage competitive team sports, but they don't allow any kid to sit and watch either. A lesson on basketball skills might involve groups of two-on-two. High schoolers can choose from such activities as Ultimate Frisbee, mountain biking and white-water rafting. Sportsmanship is rewarded; humiliation is unacceptable. Whereas old gym teachers often saw PE as a way to scout varsity jocks, new ones teach a range of cognitive and physical topics, including muscle development, nutrition and cardiovascular fitness. They also tend to be inclusive and strikingly sensitive to their increasingly overscheduled charges.

New Jersey PE teacher Andy Schmidt, named a 2000 Teacher of the Year by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), pioneered the "movement education" program for younger kids at the A.B. Smith School in Hillsdale, N.J. (Think giggling nine-year-olds chasing one another around the room, checking their pulses, flexing biceps at a wellness "station," then chatting about everything from cholesterol to protein to hamstrings.) Now at the area's middle school, he asks older kids to take the same skills further. "I have the best job in the world," says Schmidt. "Not everyone is going to want to play a sport. The key is to get them to think healthy and have fun moving."

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