TOPICS > Education

Fit for Life

March 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: 30 kids clad in gym clothes pour into the room for their daily physical education class in this suburban middle school west of Chicago, but this doesn’t look like the gym class most of us remember. This looks more like the local health club, which is exactly what it is supposed to look like, says Phil Lawler, the PE instructor who pioneered the concept of the new PE.

PHIL LAWLER, Physical Education District Coordinator: It used to be that we were meeting the needs of about 30% to 40% of our population. Those were the athletes. And the others were brought along. They were forced to take what we were offering, but really saw no value in it, really didn’t enjoy it. You’re a long ways up there!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So now PE is more than volleyball and competitive sports as in the past. New PE students at Madison Junior High in Naperville, Illinois, spend their 40-minute gym period scaling the climbing wall, running on treadmills, and using the weight machines.

CARRIE HESNESS, Student: I like this because you get, like, more opportunities to do more exercises and work out your body in different ways and stuff.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you feel like it’s keeping you in better shape?


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Lawler’s program is seen as a national model for the new PE movement that is taking hold in schools across the country.

SPOKESMAN: This is where your heart rate was when you were doing the cardiovascular workout.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: 30% of the schools in Illinois have new PE programs. The impetus for the change, says Lawler, comes from the nation’s health statistics. Obesity among children has doubled in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease control. Also on the rise, diabetes and high blood pressure. Now, video games built into the exercise equipment can help even the couch potatoes. Also on the exercise can change those statistics.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Does this make it easier to exercise?

STUDENT: Yeah, not as bored.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cardiologist Vincent Bufalino became a big booster of Lawler’s program after screening area children and finding that an astonishing 40% had high cholesterol readings.

DR. VINCENT BUFALINO, Cardiologist: The interesting correlation for us with the children was that it was not so much genetics that we found in those kids. It was really fast food restaurant use and lack of exercise that were two of the biggest predictors as to which kids had high cholesterol or not.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The worsening health statistics come at a time when the overall trend in physical education is to cut back.

SPOKESMAN: Let’s go!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Illinois is one of the few states in the country to require daily PE, but five years ago, Chicago public schools asked for a waiver. Like most urban school chiefs, Chicago CEO Arne Duncan is under intense pressure to increase academic performance and test scores.

ARNE DUNCAN, Chicago Public Schools: The goal was really to increase the academic requirements for graduation as we up the requirements for math, as we up the requirements for science, as we up the requirements for PE, we had to find time during the school day to do that, and so rather than doing the four years of PE, we reduced that to two years so we could have the more stringent, more rigorous academic requirements for our students.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Lawler says educators who trade gym time for academics are unlikely to get the results they want. He points to recent brain research that shows better brain function after exercise.

PHIL LAWLER: In Naperville, with the daily delivery of physical education, our students in the Tims test finished number one in the world in science. We finished sixth in the world in math, and they didn’t do that in spite of us. We truly feel we were a contributing factor to those test scores with the brain research that says physical activity affects the brain.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Lawler has found corporate support for the new PE movement from Chicago-based Wilson sporting goods. President Jim Baugh admits that he first got involved to promote his products and the sporting industry. But it grew to more than that.

JIM BAUGH, Wilson Sporting Goods: You have to condition people. Just like you’re teaching kids how to read or write or arithmetic, you have to teach them how to develop an active lifestyle. So this is where it switched from what’s right for sporting goods to what’s right for our country, and we’ve been on this crusade for years.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two years ago, Baugh founded PE For Life, a national non-profit advocacy organization to promote funding for daily PE programs across the country. The Naperville district is now the showcase PE for life site. Physical education has often lost out in terms of education funding.

But thanks to lobbying efforts by PE For Life and others, $50 million in grants to upgrade PE programs was included in the recently passed education appropriations bill. The $50 million is up from the $5 million in physical education for progress, or pep grants, available last year. Lawler says “new PE” programs must show measurable results just as academic programs are measured by test score results. At Madison, a fitness profile is developed for each student.

PHIL LAWLER: Don’t measure this against any other student. Just measure it against your own ability. This is going to stay in a file. We’ll test you again in the spring, and you’ll get tested next year at central.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Heart-rate monitors are worn so teachers and students can monitor their effort level. Results are downloaded after class and become a part of the student’s fitness profile. The monitors taught Lawler that even slow-moving students may be exercising at their maximum level of effort.

PHIL LAWLER: In the old days, everything was, “let’s run a mile, and if you can’t run a mile under eight minutes, you’re a failure.” Well, how many people in this country were turned off to exercise by those standards? I put a heart rate monitor on this young lady, and based on a 13.5-minute mile, she was a failure. But when I downloaded her heart rate monitor, her average heart rate for 13 minutes was 187. She was working too hard — my observation she wasn’t doing anything. Well, technology proved that my judgment in that case, I was wrong, and I was wrong for several years. Now, with this technology, we won’t make that mistake again. We will personalize it and we’ll give kids credit for what they do.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Far better to measure a student’s progress now, says cardiologist Dr. Bufalino, than to wait until the news is much grimmer.

DR. VINCENT BUFALINO: If we don’t teach the kids how to exercise early, we’re not going to get them to do it when they’re 40 or 50, when I see them and they’re ready for their bypass surgery. And we have to put a scar on their chest to convince them they should start exercising– something wrong with that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Department of Education will begin taking applications for pep grants at the end of February.