This Ain't Your Granddaddy's Gym Class
> 5/1/2007 1:24:39 PM

The realities of obesity in America, and the public hand-wringing with which it has been met, have led to all manners of finger pointing. But few single institutions have been as vilified as the public education system for its perceived failure to address the problem. While America's expanding waist lines are not entirely the fault of our schools, districts nationwide have stepped up to the challenge. Schools have limited access to unhealthy food and drinks, a measure that was met with a great deal of fanfare. Beyond that however, in a New York Times piece updating an earlier story, we learn that gym class, that stalwart bastion of dodge ball and rope climbing, has been receiving something of a face-lift aimed at producing healthier students.

Over a year ago, West Virgina announced plans to develop a fitness curriculum around the video game Dance Dance Revolution, and implement it in all 765 public schools in the state. Working with the game's developer, Konami, educators and administrators in West Virginia have made the active, dance-based game a major component in their overhaul of physical education. West Virginia has consistently ranked at the bottom of the nation in levels of obesity, with childhood obesity being one of the largest problems. As the Times article makes clear, the new physical education curriculum aims to take the focus off team sports and instead highlight life-long health.

“Our teachers are really buying into D.D.R. as a way to promote both physical health and learning,” said [Ron Ramspott, one district's coordinator of health and physical education]. “When you’re playing the game you really have to process the information and then also do the moves physically, so we think it can help with brain development as well.”

As Leighton Nakamoto, a physical education teacher at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao, Hawaii, put it: “The new physical education is moving away from competitive team sports and is more about encouraging lifetime fitness, and D.D.R. is a part of that. They can do it on their own, and they don’t have to compete with anyone else.”

Physical education has been a hot battleground over the last several years. Some cash strapped districts have been forced to modify or limit physical education, while at the same time educators, parents and doctors have called for more time spent on the subject. The eventual meeting point, as we're seeing in West Virginia, must be found in a compromise of the two positions. We know that physical fitness is not only an important part of a healthy life, but also an important part of a healthy nation. While a life of fitness should ideally be founded in the home, our public schools are the only place where we can ensure that a basic level of health and fitness is part of children's lives.

By focusing on lifetime fitness, as opposed to say, skill at throwing a football, physical education departments can move beyond simply instilling an understanding of physical fitness, to setting a course for future enjoyment of physical activity. We should view this as a valuable use of precious resources: both students' time and taxpayers money. The program in West Virginia, one that has now begun to spread across the U.S., displays a high level of creativity. Many students are already familiar with and enjoy DDR, and by showing them that their past-time can be part of a healthy lifestyle, while also teaching strategies for further fitness improvement, districts like those in West Virginia are setting the table for success. With their program soon to be in place at every school, West Virginia should indeed begin to climb out of the national fitness basement.

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