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COVID-driven physical inactivity crisis hits school-age children

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The physical activity levels of our young people were already trending downward when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic made things worse. Kids around were stuck at home, forced to try to learn virtually.

An online math class is one thing. A physical education class at home is nearly impossible.

During the pandemic, physical education has been pushed way down on the education priority list. As a result, many schools have cut physical education classes and dropped some phys-ed teachers.

The number of students taking phys-ed classes was already at a record low when the pandemic hit. Recess time was also being cut or eliminated and intramural sports programs had pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. All those negative trends were escalated by COVID-19.

This situation is extremely frustrating. The research clearly shows that physically fit kids have fewer health problems and perform better academically. Moreover, in this era of social-media-induced stress for school children, combined with the stress of being isolated from school peers during the pandemic, cardio vascular-based physical activity is a proven stress reducer and emotional health enhancer.

“Research has shown that lack of physical activity may be a more significant factor in contributing to childhood obesity than even bad diet,” according to former U.S. Congressman and NBA player Tom McMillen. McMillen serves as the board chairman for the National Fitness Foundation in the United States.

“Other research in adults,” he adds, “indicates that poor fitness is a more significant predictor of death than obesity generally, diabetes and other causes. In other words, the most important thing we can do for the health of our kids is to get them up off the couch.”

The amount of time students spend in physical education steadily declines from kindergarten through high school. By high school, most kids in North America are basically done with phys-ed. It doesn’t have to be that way – and it certainly shouldn’t.

All kids should be physically active, not just athletes. Interscholastic varsity sports teams serve only a small percentage of the typical high school’s student population. Today’s societal focus on elite athletes, club sports programs, travel teams, varsity athletics, etc., has left kids “with this belief that sports are not for me, and therefore exercise in school is not for me, and that’s too bad,” says Christopher Berry, principal of Tuscarora High School in Frederick, Md.

Tuscarora makes physical activity a key part of its daily schedule. They consider it a co-curricular asset tied to the rest of their educational offerings. Intramural sports and physical activity programs are vibrant at Tuscarora and even periodically available during daily flex periods.

The list of research-based benefits from exercise, sports and other forms of physical activity is long.

It includes better cardiorespiratory health, stronger bones and muscles, lower blood pressure, less risk of Type 2 diabetes, weight reduction, reduced anxiety and depression, and improved cognitive functioning. In addition, research has shown that physically active kindergarten-to-Grade-12 students generally have better grades, enhanced memory capabilities, lower absenteeism rates, and better classroom behaviour.

As a society, we need to focus on getting our young people moving more through quality physical education, intramurals and club sports, as well as other physical activities.

Young people who are active through high school are more active than their less-active school peers through their adult years. Active children tend to turn into active adults. That means a healthier and happier population and lower health-care costs.

Let’s not let physical education be another casualty of COVID-19.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.


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