The power of physical activity

A guest editorial by State Superintendent Tony Evers
The health status of American youth is receiving a significant amount of attention. More of our kids are overweight and obese than ever before, in part because of a significant decline in physical activity levels.
Physical education became a curricular course in Wisconsin in 1923 as a result of high military draft rejection rates in World War I. Since that time, we’ve moved beyond treating physical education as playtime or training for team sports. Our physical education teachers are professional educators who plan a comprehensive physical education curriculum founded on lifetime fitness. From kindergarten through high school students learn about and play various team and individual sports, are exposed to a wide range of movement, experience age-appropriate assessment, and learn about the connections between good health and physical activity. But physical education class isn’t quite enough exercise. Our kids need to be active outside of school and with their families. In fact, exercises learned in school can be shared at home and become a fun source of family time.
The Department of Public Instruction has been involved in the Active Schools Project with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health in an effort to increase physical activity for our kids. In the 2010-11 school year, 36 schools in 21 districts piloted active schools strategies to provide students with opportunities to engage in 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
This study generated four strategies that show the most promise for changing the school environment to include more physical activity. The CORE 4 strategies include — increasing active and quality physical education minutes, implementing an organized recess program for elementary and middle school students, increasing opportunities for recreation before and after school, and implementing limited-space energy breaks in the classroom. These CORE 4 strategies are being implemented in 50 Wisconsin schools over the next three years to build a research base for the Active Schools Project.
Just what is an energy break? It’s a few minutes, anywhere from five to 15, that provide students with the opportunity to get out of their chairs. The best energy breaks are active learning opportunities that reinforce lessons while moving. Some of the suggested activities encourage listening and observational skills or following directions, others integrate academic concepts with movement. Just the act of standing up speeds information processing and increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Teachers involved with Wisconsin’s Active Schools pilot reported improved student focus and engagement after participating in classroom physical activity breaks.
Researchers tell us that exercise impacts mood, cements memory, and enhances connections between neurons in the brain. More than 200 research studies support the premise that healthy kids are better prepared to learn. There’s power in physical activity. Let’s encourage our students to lead an active healthy lifestyle through physical education and activities in the classroom and outside of school. It will help them learn.

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