Make exercise fun to stem obesity

The Virginian-Pilot
© December 9, 2011

Gym class evokes memories of smelly tube socks and dodge ball, along with excruciating forays into the world of physical fitness, that could forever turn young minds against the concept of exercise.

Perhaps some of those gym class kids grew into adults who now spring out of bed early each day to do 10 sets of toe-touches. Perhaps others have trained for years to perfect their square-dancing technique or hone their hand-over-hand pegboard skills.

A new generation of physical education teachers with crazy ideas about how exercise can be fun, even pleasurable, hopes to create a different set of memories while tackling one of the biggest health threats facing today’s kids.

Childhood obesity in the United States has tripled in the last generation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17 percent of children and adolescents in the country. The solution is better diet and exercise for kids, including activities aimed at convincing children that physical exertion is more than a chore and that get them moving instead of turning into tubers.

Terry Crigger at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy offers boys in his advanced physical education class lessons in skateboarding, mountain biking and fishing. He literally introduces breaths of fresh air into the gym class curriculum. Tom Shenk, a PE teacher from Portsmouth’s John Tyler Elementary, incorporated movement into academic lessons to provide stress relief and to keep students alert and engaged as they learn. That’s cross training, in fitness lingo. Chad Triolet, a phys-ed teacher at Chesapeake’s Deep Creek Elementary, boosts brain cells and sweat glands with games like “noodle tag,” played with foam swimming pool floats, and by mixing crab walks and jumping jacks with reading exercises.

Physical education teachers and parents are on the front lines fighting the obesity epidemic among children. Their instruction is crucial to building healthy habits that will last a lifetime. Research shows that school-day exercise brings benefits other than working up a sweat: Moving while learning increases attention spans.

Teachers who reinforce the link between a healthy body and healthy mind have been honored for their work: Shenk won division and regional Teacher of the Year awards, and Triolet won the National Elementary School Physical Education Teacher of the Year award.

The honors are well deserved. But the real reward is healthier, happier kids.

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