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Despite state law, teens miss out on PE

Combined Media/FlickrAbout 1.3 million California teenagers do not take PE classes, a new report has found.

More than a third of teens in California do not participate in physical education at school, even though state law requires educators to provide a minimum amount, according to a new report.

A study released yesterday by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that about 1.3 million California teenagers – or 38 percent of students ages 12 to 17 – manage to avoid PE classes during the school week.

State law requires schools to provide 400 minutes of physical education every 10 days for students in middle and high school. That's roughly 13 percent out of every two-week period.

The findings are based on data from the 2007 California Health Interview Survey, in which researchers conducted interviews with more 50,000 households, including more than 3,600 adolescents drawn from every county in the state.

The report also found that the percentage of teens participating in physical education drops with age, from 95 percent participation at age 12 down to 23 percent at age 17. 

"The danger I see is especially among juniors and seniors in high school," said Allison L. Diamant, one of the study's co-authors. "It's at that point in time that they're really setting down behaviors that will continue into adulthood."

Researchers also found that more than 80 percent of California teens fail to meet current recommendations for physical activity.

That's despite mounds of research showing the downfalls of a sedentary lifestyle. A 2010 report [PDF] from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found physical activity is associated with increased mental alertness and higher academic achievement in some cases.

And a 2008 report [PDF] from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found

physically active people have higher levels of health-related fitness, a lower risk for developing a number of disabling medical conditions, and lower rates of chronic diseases than people who are inactive.

"All of this is a huge burden on the individual, family and society in terms of health care costs," Diamant said. "We also know that when kids perform in regular physical activity they also do better in school. It helps kids stay focused ... and it's helpful to maintain strong muscles and strong bones."

The UCLA study noted that the amount of time allocated to physical education has been reduced or eliminated in California schools, and that budgetary pressures could prompt additional cutbacks.

The average number of days that teens participate in PE each week varies by county, ranging from 1.8 days in Santa Cruz County to 3.8 days in Madera County (see chart below). The report attributed this to differences in school district policies and in the amount of resources they have, among other reasons.

Murry Schekman, assistant superintendent of secondary schools for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville, was surprised to hear that Santa Cruz County is at the bottom of the list.

With one junior high, three middle schools and three comprehensive high schools, Pajaro Valley is one of Santa Cruz County's largest districts. Schekman said students in grades six through nine take physical education every day. Students must take one more year of PE at some point between grades 10 and 12.

"We think the PE curriculum is solid. We have huge issues here in the valley with diabetes," Schekman said. "Where we may have less offerings is (grades) 10 through 12."

The study did not find a statistically significant difference between physical education participation at private schools versus public schools, Diamant said.

The UCLA report recommends that schools prioritize physical education classes that still remain, while also finding creative ways to insert structured exercise breaks into the school day. It also suggests limiting the number of physical education exemptions that students can get during grades 10 through 12.

The California Court of Appeal ruled in December 2010 that parents can sue their children's public schools if administrators fail to provide the minimum amount of required physical education, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The ruling came after a parent of a child at Cornell Elementary School sued the Albany school district to force it to offer the minimum required physical education.

The California Department of Education sided with the parent in that case, saying that districts should provide the minimum physical education requirements but that the state is too budget-strapped to enforce them.

"We have always had the view that the minutes are required," Hilary McLean, a department spokeswoman, told the Chronicle. "Unfortunately, due to the state budget crisis, we've never been funded to do the monitoring. It is up to local districts to comply with the law."


Average Number of Days of Physical Education Per Week, Adolescents Ages 12-17, California, 2007
Counties Days of Physical Education
Madera 3.8
Stanislaus 3.6
Monterey 3.6
Placer 3.5
Shasta 3.4
Lake 3.4
Sutter 3.4
Kern 3.4
San Bernardino 3.3
Imperial 3.3
Humboldt 3.2
Yuba 3.2
Contra Costa 3.2
Butte 3.1
Tehama, Glenn, Colusa 3.1
Fresno 3.1
Merced 3.1
Solano 3
Mendocino 2.9
San Francisco 2.9
Napa 2.9
Yolo 2.9
Kings 2.9
San Joaquin 2.7
Tulare 2.7
Los Angeles 2.7
San Diego 2.7
Nevada 2.6
Santa Clara 2.6
Sonoma 2.6
Sacramento 2.6
Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono, Alpine 2.5
Del Norte, Siskiyou, Lassen, Trinity, Modoc, Plumas, Sierra 2.4
Marin 2.4
El Dorado 2.4
San Benito 2.4
Riverside 2.4
San Luis Obispo 2.3
Orange 2.3
Ventura 2.2
Alameda 2.1
San Mateo 2.1
Santa Barbara 1.9
Santa Cruz 1.8

Source: 2007 California Health Interview Survey. Days of physical education refers to the average number of days per week that teens have PE.



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