A Gym Class That Really Works Out

Remember the good old days of gym class, when you hated being the last kid picked for flag football or waited half a class period for your turn with the basketball?

Unfortunately, in the majority of physical education classes across the country, not much has changed. Not only are most PE classes sub par, students also get less exercise time than they need.

According to the 2006 Shape of the Nation, a joint project between the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the percentage of students who take PE daily dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003.

The study also found that about a third of states in America do not mandate physical education for elementary and middle school students.

This is unsettling news, particularly in light of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. Approximately 25 million American children and teens are either overweight or on the verge of being overweight, which boosts their risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer.

A new program based in San Diego wants to change all that. Sports, Play and Active Recreation For Kids, better known as SPARK, is a research-based organization that applies innovative techniques to traditional PE programs to promote health and wellness and to maximize kids' gym time.

"Teachers often spend a little too much time managing students, putting out discipline problems, taking roll, talking a little bit too much," said Paul Rosengard, SPARK's executive director. "And we would like to see the kids moving a lot more."

Everyone Plays, No One's Last-Picked

Breaking the class into small groups, providing enough equipment for everyone and playing games where no one is picked last are some of the goals of SPARK, which has reached out to more than 1 million students nationwide, including the children at Everett Elementary School in Everett, Pa.

"In old PE I was the last picked," said 10-year-old Trevon Ward, a fifth grader at Everett Elementary. "It was boring because I would have to sit and watch them. And then when I did get picked, it was only a short time of playing and it wasn't that fun. [Now] it's really fun because we all get to play together."

Everett superintendent Rodney Green implemented SPARK after a 2003 survey revealed that students in his district had the highest percentage of body fat in the county. Twenty six percent of students were overweight while 18 percent were at risk. It didn't take long for Green to connect the dots between poor PE and students' health.

"PE before SPARK really was a more traditional approach on a very limited basis, but SPARK added a whole menu that we didn't have available to us before," Green said.

Now trained in the SPARK technique, Everett physical education teacher Karen Pittman visits each of the four elementary schools in the district weekly, impacting more than 900 students. Several classroom teachers also got trained in the SPARK technique, so PE could be integrated throughout the school day.

Everett's SPARK-influenced PE class lasts 30 minutes and consists of two parts: a health-fitness activity, like aerobic dance, and a skill-fitness activity, like basketball.

"I'm still doing the same sports that I did four years ago," Pittman said. "It's just a different way of approaching these games. It's more inclusive. There's complete activity during the whole 30 minutes; there's no standing around."

The age-appropriate physical activity is specially designed to boost heart rates, strengthen muscles and build endurance, and Pittman does it all without making the students compete against each other. They don't pick teams, and everyone always gets to play.

In addition to getting kids moving, SPARK focuses on children as a whole -- not just on their physical health -- by teaching life skills. In a SPARK PE class, kids may learn new ways to set goals, make decisions and solve problems. And they get extra points for taking the message home and being active with family members.

Does More Time Playing Equal Lower Test Scores?

Not everyone is a fan of the SPARK method.

Some parents may worry that spending more time on physical fitness leaves less time for kids to hit the books. Teachers and administrators fear that more PE classes will prevent students' meeting the standards of No Child Left Behind.

But according to a study published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, spending more time on physical education had no effect on standardized test scores.

Researchers split 754 fourth graders into two groups -- one got PE the SPARK way, and one got traditional PE -- and tracked them for two years.

Though children in the SPARK group spent twice as much time doing physical activities, their scores on academic achievement tests administered before and after the study were the same as the non-SPARK group.

Other research has shown that improved physical activity boosts children's self esteem and school performance. A recent study of more than 200,000 middle school students found that test scores in math and language arts improved as physical fitness levels increased.

"Lower hypertension, lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, releasing of endorphins in the brain--all of these things, including the higher energy levels and greater levels of sleep that result from being physically active, add up," Rosengard said. "And the cumulative effect is that healthy kids are better learners."

Good for Kids, Good for the Community

When kids are excited about PE, their enthusiasm spills over into their families and out to their community.

"The children are becoming really PE evangelists," Everett Superintendent Green said. "They're going home, they're telling their families about these fun activities."

"SPARK is a great program for our family," said Tracy Koontz, mother of three children, two of whom took SPARK PE at Everett Elementary. "We've seen a lot of positive changes come, especially in our daughter. She was so quiet, and now she's very outgoing. And our son loves it--he just thinks he can take on the world."

"I think SPARK is a great gym program for our school," said 8-year-old Joseph Koontz, a second grader at Everett Elementary. "It helps you body and all, and it gets you really active, too."

The town has taken notice. A new health club just opened in Everett, and a Bike-the-Trails project is in the works. According to Green, Everett's Chamber of Commerce now focuses on including exercise and recreation in its tourism efforts.