POWAY, Calif., Jan. 14, 2007 — -- Step aerobics, tennis, yoga, swimming, cross-training -- they sound like activities you'd find at a fancy gym, or even a country club.
But believe it or not, they're all activities taking place in high school physical education classes across the country. It's the new face of physical education, which is not just about kickball and dodge ball anymore.
At Westview High School in Poway, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, students are exposed to sports and exercise with the hope they'll find something they want to participate in for life. Traditional physical education classes focused on playing sports. The new P.E. focuses on leading a healthy lifestyle.
Paige Metz, one of Westview's physical education teachers, tries to get kids excited about leading active lives.
"We've reached a time in society where kids aren't just going outside and playing," she says. "There are things that they've got to do that they're fitting into their schedule. And at the same time, they've lost the ability to just go out and play and to be kids."
Westview and schools nationwide are turning their physical education curriculums away from traditional team sports to encourage everyone to be active -- not just those who are more athletically inclined.
Metz and her fellow phys ed teachers work hard to give their students a wider variety of activities, with the hope that everyone will find something they enjoy.
One of Metz's activities is a series of cross training exercises aimed at getting her students to do 18 minutes of continuous cardiovascular activity. The students rotate through various stations, including jumping rope 50 times, climbing up and down stairs around the football field, running backwards and sidestepping quickly up a ramp.
By varying the activity, they may not realize that they're actually getting a full workout.
Her students seem to be responding. They're having fun, yelling encouragement at each other and working up a good sweat.
Ninth grader Nelson Seilhan says he enjoys actually getting a good workout.
"In grade school, yeah, we played some games," he says. "But we didn't really get into that target heart-rate zone at all."
Yes, a ninth grader is talking about his "target heart-rate zone." Something must be sinking in.
The challenge Metz and her colleagues face is an important one. Their students are in high school, which tends to be the last time in their lives many kids have physical education class or play on a sports team. By offering yoga, Pilates, Filipino dance, pool exercises, aerobics and other activities, kids may find something they enjoy enough to stick with as they move onto college and adulthood.
"I think you really empower kids to make healthy choices," says Metz. "When they leave your class, they're not just leaving in better shape than when they came in. They're leaving with strategies [so] that they can maintain a healthy lifestyle from now, for the rest of their lives."
These freshly inspired physical education courses have arrived at a critical time. Over the last 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the number of overweight children has doubled, and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled.
The statistics are even worse for adults. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 60 million adults in the United States -- 30 percent -- are obese. The United States has the highest rate of obesity in the world among developed countries.
Getting kids active early and keeping them active through adulthood may be crucial to the future health of the United States. A recent study by the Institute of Medicine predicts that one in five kids will be obese by 2010.
For the first time in U.S. history, today's children may have a shorter lifespan than that of their parents.
Some states are taking action. In the last year, 28 states have restricted selling soft drinks in vending machines at schools. Some are also changing the lunch menu to eliminate foods that are high in sugars, salt and fat.
But the inactivity of many American children is still weighing them down. The biggest offenders? Television and video games.
So perhaps a new outlook on the way physical education classes are conducted will encourage young people to live healthier lifestyles.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) says 41 states have developed state standards that align with all six of the national standards for physical education.
NASPE has developed its own system of recognition for schools that have outstanding programs in physical education, calling it "STARS" status.
So far, 16 states have schools that have achieved that goal. One of those schools is Oliver Heckman Elementary School in Langhorne, Pa.
Richard Grafius has been teaching physical education there for 37 years. He believes kids can -- and should -- start to learn about overall health and physical fitness as early as possible. Some of his students at Oliver Heckman are in kindergarten and first grade.
Grafius says that young kids will be active when they're having fun. He tries to teach his students the basics -- throwing a ball, catching a ball, moving in space and different locomotive movements. He keeps his program fun with equipment like scooters, and by making physical activities into games.
The activities he teaches have a purpose, he says.
"They are to provide a basis for future activities," Grafius adds. "We teach movement skills, manipulative skills, so the kids can try other things later on in life and have a skill base on which to draw from."
Grafius' fifth graders are learning safety as they whiz back and forth in front of the school on scooters. The students are wearing helmets and protective gear, and they have to stop at each of the marked points, and make a visual and audible motion as to which direction they're heading before they continue on.
The second graders are using yellow bouncing balls and learning how to throw, kick and move them in different ways. Walking around as they bounce and roll the balls around the room is good exercise, and they're having a good time as they scream to retrieve balls that have bounced too far or too high.
In nearby Levittown, Pa., Carl Sandburg Middle School is also a "STARS" status recipient.
Students there are in sixth through ninth grade, and are not only offered a variety of activities to choose from, they're also taught health, nutrition and first-aid skills like CPR and how to save someone who's choking. The physical activities range from biking and inline skating to step aerobics, water polo and even snorkeling.
"We want to see every student learning a variety of lifetime activities," says Terry Martian, head of the school's physical education department. "We teach them the skills to be successful so that. … they choose then to do that for the rest of their life."
Teachers at all these schools say team sports are important and should have a place, just not in physical education class.
"The 'old' P.E. was strictly team sports; sides were chosen," says Martian. "We have much better ways of dividing kids into teams, if we need teams, where kids don't feel left out."
According to the theory, the less a child feels excluded, the more likely they'll be able to enjoy the class, even if they aren't the best at it.
Across the country in San Diego, Paige Metz agrees.
"Nobody should ever be the last kid ever picked for any team," she says. "It should be about all kids being able to participate successfully at the same time."