The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has the luxury of issuing recommendations without worrying about how they ought to be implemented.
That’s unfortunate, because its recommendations to improve the health and fitness of young people make a lot of sense. So, in a fashion, does the role of schools, where young people spend much of their waking hours. Trouble is, the Institute of Medicine leaves out details such as where the time and money to implement the recommendations are to come from.
Among the institute’s recommendations is that the Department of Education support elevating physical education— PE — to a core subject. In terms of specifics:
• Elementary school students should spend at least 30 minutes every day in PE, and middle and high school students should spend 45 minutes a day, resulting in 150 minutes a week for younger children and 225 minutes for middle and high school students.
• At least half of PE class should involve vigorous to moderately intensive activity.
• Students should do additional vigorous to moderately intensive activity at other times during the school day, such as during recess and classroom breaks.
• Schools should offer options, including intramural and extramural activities such as walking, biking and skateboarding, before or after school.
Mark Terry, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, praised the overarching goal of helping kids become healthy as “a great goal, but a difficult one.” Not surprisingly, he added, “You have to look at the unintended consequences of things like this. They are well-meaning, and they are good for kids, but you have to alter the amount of time you have for other subjects.”
That’s not likely to happen, in part because of the importance of other subjects and because so many families still don’t see health and fitness as something to be learned in school.
As for lengthening the school day — an idea with plenty of merit — it would not only add to school costs but would probably require too many family and community adjustments to garner broad support.
The irony is, if parents saw that their children were more active on their own, the involvement of schools might not be an issue. As it is, however, one-third of American children are overweight or obese — and at growing risk of developing a number of serious ailments, from heart disease to diabetes.
What’s perhaps lost in the Institute of Medicine’s focus on schools is that where young people get vigorous exercise is less important than ensuring that they actually do get adequate exercise.