Fit For Life

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The benefits can go beyond fun. Ryan Cooper, a seventh-grader in Gardner, Kans., used to get teased by classmates for being shy and overweight. During his four years with grade-school PE teacher KaCee Chambers, whom he credits with encouraging and motivating him, he went from not being able to do a single pull-up to setting the school record. Says Ryan, who also lost 10% of his body fat: "I don't take anything from anyone now!" In Naperville, Lawler recently detected unusually high cholesterol levels in one three-sport middle school athlete, who got medical attention and altered his (and his family's) fatty diet.

Despite the obvious need for and benefit of PE, the battle to restore it to schools is still very much uphill. "There are only six hours in the average student's day," says NASPE's executive director, Judith Young. "We're often considered an elective, so now we find ourselves competing with technology and language lab."

Furthermore, schools are generally not held accountable for their students' physical fitness. Some states, like Missouri, New York and South Carolina, are beginning to implement assessments of PE skills that would be part of the public report card. "What are most schools now rewarded for?" asks CDC health scientist Howell Wechsler, a contributor to the President's report. "Achievement in language arts, math, social studies."

In some cases, parents themselves resist. A NASPE survey earlier this year found that parents overwhelmingly support PE. But other studies have found that the parents of overweight kids tend to deny the problem. Chambers recalls her excitement at successfully motivating a young overweight girl to establish an exercise regimen in her home--only to get an angry call from the girl's panicky, obese mother saying, "'Her face is red, and that's not good for her. We're all big, and we're going to stay that way.'"

Advocates say one of the most difficult hurdles is changing people's perceptions. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, an Illinois state legislator who has worked on education issues for 18 years, admits that before meeting Naperville's Lawler, she was not as zealous a PE advocate. "PE the way it used to be probably should be abolished," she says. "The last person you wanted to be was the last one picked for a team, and I was always chosen last." Now Cowlishaw is Lawler's "biggest fan" and the sponsor of a proposal to the state board of education to set up grants for districts wanting to emulate his program. "This is exactly what kids should be learning. It just makes so much sense."

As New PE spreads, more are sharing that view. Tim McCord, a once traditional PE teacher from rural Titusville, Penn., runs a two-year-old program based on Lawler's model--and on a budget of just $1,000 a year. Setting a much needed national example, the decidedly working-class district upped the PE requirement for high schoolers to a daily 42 minutes starting next year. The CDC's Wechsler advises school boards to re-evaluate their priorities. "You might argue that you can skip algebra and do O.K.," he says. "But learning about how to stay healthy could save your life."

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