Physical Education: Priceless

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2011

Physical education is taking a beating in many of America's schools. The demands of preparing children for standardized academic tests and the funding squeeze that has resulted from a sick economy have caused school administrators to scale back or even eliminate P.E. classes, sometimes ignoring state laws that require minimum class hours. Parent groups demand that cheerleading, marching band and dance programs be substituted for structured classes in physical education in the belief that those activities are equivalent. It is no help when funding problems force a school to recruit non-P.E. teachers for what should be a specialized position

Support from parents, teachers, administrators and elected officials is sometimes lacking because they recall their own experience in P.E. class: suited up for exertion but standing around for most of an hour while waiting for limited access to space or equipment.

More structured, rigorous and effective standards are spreading among enlightened school administrators who recognize that active children are more likely to become healthier adults. Effective instruction and participation in school-based P.E. programs carry over into adult life. A country in which barely one-quarter of adults maintain normal weight and even fewer exercise strenuously most days of the week cannot afford to let its children proceed along the same pathway.

Osteoporosis is a disease that is increasing disproportionately as each succeeding generation drifts deeper into the sedentary lifestyle. Without the distractions during childhood of TVs, PCs and Gameboys, today's seniors grew up running, climbing, biking and playing ball, yet one out of every two women and one out of every four men will experience a broken bone in their lifetime. What will this epidemic of osteoporosis be like when their barely active great-grandchildren reach retirement age?

In a 5-year study of nearly 2400 Swedish schoolchildren, a comparison was made between those who exercised 200 minutes per week (the recommended U.S. standard) and those who had only 60 minutes. The more active group had greater gains in spinal, hip and leg bone mineral density, and the girls benefited the most. Contrary to what the investigators had expected, fracture rates were no greater in the group that exercised more than those who were less active.

The school years represent a window for skeletal development that closes by the mid-20s. Beyond that age, diet and exercise can prevent bone loss but can add only very little to skeletal strength.

The value of physical education? Priceless!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.