Pound foolish elitism

One third of the children in Virginia are overweight or obese. Not coincidentally, soft drinks and other “foods” containing high-fructose corn syrup are readily available in our public schools. And now, thanks to Governor Bob McDonnell’s veto, there will be no half hour per day of physical education for public school students. According to the governor, we can’t afford to take time away from preparing for standardized tests or the cost of additional instruction.

This is gross fiscal irresponsibility. The ultimate costs in healthcare and lost productivity as these children age will vastly outpace any investment required to integrate 30 minutes of physical activity into the school day – but in the typical short-sighted manner of today’s so-called “conservatives,” McDonnell has chosen to kick the can down the road and let this growing health crisis become someone else’s problem. The argument from our McDonnells and Cuccinellis in a few years will be that treating the diabetes and heart disease in these now-adults is a “personal responsibility” issue, and not the purview of government.

Even worse, it’s a choice to maintain a culture in which physical fitness is valued only for an athletic elite, not for the general student body. The roles under this system are clear: Unless you can perform at a certain competitive level, you are to be a spectator, not an athlete. Physical fitness is not taught as a healthy lifestyle, available to everyone, but rather as a means of attaining status and providing entertainment. The school sports culture, with its requirement for huge swaths of land for school construction and lighted ball fields – which certainly constitutes a land grab – does nothing for the health and fitness of most of our students. And now, even the suggestion that those facilities could be utilized to benefit the health of ALL students, not just those whose families choose to support participation in sports, has been vetoed. It’s a cultural blind spot which can and should be remedied. We don’t leave the learning of math and reading up to individual choice, and we shouldn’t leave physical fitness training up to individual choice, either. It’s something to which every child is entitled.

7 thoughts on “Pound foolish elitism

  1. Ann

    We all know that exercise during the day improves our performance, mentally, physically, and emotionally. We even have the good sense to actually pay someone to come in the middle of the day and walk our dogs! (which, btw, would never be fed an unhealthy diet). But, for some reason we cannot build the political will and grassroots force to actually require our school systems to promote healthy routines (physically, mentally and emotionally) for our children– leaving them in a challenging environment all day with nothing to relieve the tensions, but junk food snacks — [stress eating]. This is an abuse. Pure and simple. For what? Money? Power? Political infighting?

  2. Epluribusunum Post author

    I also enthusiastically agree with the idea that this doesn’t require money or “facilities.” There should be some collaborative creativity involving after school programs like what you describe. What’s really needed is the decision to practice what we say we value.

  3. Epluribusunum Post author

    The land grab reference was hyberbole – thanks for noticing! Really, my only point is that if we don’t treat physical activity, in whatever form suits each person, as a basic part of education, we are missing the mark.

    One of the school administrators quoted in L2D said that this needs to be “a community effort,” and I agree with that. Public schools are a central part of the community for families with children, and are expected to provide education in other basic life skills, like critical thinking and algebra and how to write an intelligible sentence. It’s a no-brainer to treat daily physical activity this way, IMO. Our bodies work better and stay healthier when they are used, so why would we choose not to convey the importance of this fact to our students? It requires a change in world view. We make the things that we actually value mandatory.

  4. Barbara Munsey

    Agree with both of you that fit can be quite different for everyone.

    My daughter tried sports, and unless it was an activity she enjoyed (like skating, or volleyball) didn’t like PE at all.

    That said, she walks daily, for a couple miles, and that’s an activity that is already a habit for her which can be enjoyed her whole life long.

    My son is Mr. lean and Muscled, and if it’s daylight and not raining, he’s outside being intensely active. He loves physical activity, and I’m grateful!

    A program offered for free, after school, on a volunteer basis, at the elementary they attended was designed for this current issue, IMO. The principal at the time started an after school club that focused on being healthy and active, and through teacher and parent volunteers, held sport and game activities several times a week, and walked through the neighborhood in a group when school got out.

    They promoted healthy activity, and eating healthy, and the kids seemed to enjoy it and benefit from it.

    I have my own reservations about NCLB and how it trickles down, but it is an unfunded federal mandate.

    The one thing I would most disagree with on the main post is the idea that you seem to be putting forth that the sports facilities attached to each school are a “land grab”, and would only be fully utilized if this new mandate were enacted.

    Please don’t forget that each public school we have is a colocated rec facility. We are blessed to have some wonderful youth sports leagues down here now, that provide an opportunity for kids who just want to play an alternative to the highly competitive school teams.

    My son played basketball and football for several years in these leagues, and they practiced and played on a variety of school gyms and fields. The facilities are not restricted exclusively to the school teams, and a lot of kids benefit from that parks and rec component to their use.

    That said, I am glad the Governor took the action he did.

    It is my responsibility to provide good nutrition for my own kids, to teach them as best I can to make healthy choices, and to encourage them to find fun physical exercise that suits their individual needs.

    And as my daughter proves to me, even if she never found an organized sport that was her cup of tea, and rejoiced when she aged out of mandated PE, it doesn’t cost a cent for her to have a regular healthy activity: the great outdoors is right there, waiting to be walked around in for miles at a time.

  5. Paradox13

    I agree, wholeheartedly. Another thing that the lack of physical education in schools does is create a de facto “class divide” among the student body between those who participate in team sports, and those who do not.

    Let me be clear, I truly despised gym class growing up. And the 10 year old me is cheering the failure of this legislation. That being said, more mature reflection tells me that there were benfits to it that I did not understand at the time, but are clear now.

    Now, if we had year-round school, perhaps we could have ways of integrating physical education without impacting classroom time, but that’s a different conversation.

  6. Epluribusunum Post author

    That’s true – the broad brush of the “childhood obesity” context both erases the fact that fit bodies don’t all look the same and the many, many other benefits of regular exercise unrelated to body mass index. One that I didn’t mention is that girls who are physically fit and/or participate in sports (it’s not clear whether these are confounded) are less likely to tolerate abusive dating relationships.

    At any rate, it’s framed this way because that’s the way the bill and the professional medical associations supporting the bill framed it – around childhood obesity. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more to the story, and thank you for pointing it out.

    The point is, exercise is objectively good, for everyone, and something that should be affirmatively taught. End of report.

  7. Liz Miller

    I agree that we need to have more exercise time and less faux food in the schools, but can we please have this conversation without bringing the “obesity epidemic” into it?

    Exercise has been proven to be helpful in the learning process, in controlling ADHD behaviors, and many other things. None of which is related to obesity.

    There are also many people who are fit and fat, and many more people, like a younger me, who could eat nothing but sugary, fatty stuff and not gain weight, but who could not, by any definition, have been considered “fit”.

    Exercise is objectively good. Real food that is as unprocessed as possible is objectively good. Can we talk about McDonnell’s veto in that context, please?

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