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Classes come first, but schools must add more physical activity

October 3, 2011

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IN THE face of rising childhood obesity, getting enough exercise is as important for children as eating healthy. But while Massachusetts public schools have made good progress in getting rid of unhealthy snacks and high-calorie sodas, state legislators still need to do more to ensure that students are getting enough physical activity in schools.

Physical education - that is, gym class - is theoretically a state requirement in Massachusetts, but the law was watered down in the 1990s to the point that many schools ignore it completely, preferring to use limited time on academic classes. For instance, 30 percent of Boston schools offer no gym.

Several proposals circulating on Beacon Hill would get kids moving again. The most far-reaching, introduced by state Senator Thomas McGee, would put teeth back into the state physical education guidelines by requiring that schools meet national standards - currently 150 minutes a week for elementary school students.

Some parents worry that forcing kids to take gym would take too much class time away from academic subjects. But that’s an argument for extending the school day, not chipping away at important enrichment programs like physical education - or, for that matter, music and art. Some charter schools with longer hours have been able to protect those programs, one of the reasons that may account for their success.

Still, at a time when towns are struggling with their budgets, saddling districts with the cost of hiring new gym teachers and upgrading facilities may be unpalatable to lawmakers. But financial concerns should not stop them from embracing another bill filed by state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, which would mandate that Massachusetts schools that lack physical education programs must provide at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

“Physical activity’’ means just what it sounds like - keeping students physically active, even if they’re not in a dedicated gym class. That could mean integrating more educational games and short exercises into the school day, or providing a more organized recess. (Some school districts have even parked the school bus a few blocks from the door, just to force kids to walk.)

Both proposals draw on research that shows keeping students active not only combats obesity, but improves their focus when they return to academic subjects. For instance, a study in the Cambridge public schools in 2004-05 found that exercise was correlated to higher MCAS scores.

Ultimately, the two approaches aren’t contradictory. Massachusetts schools should have physical education programs, and a school day long enough to accommodate them. In the meantime, anything that gets kids moving is a step in the right direction.