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More physical activity in schools could spark an educational revolution in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — If one lawmaker gets his way, Utah students may be more active during the seven or so hours they spend at school five days a week.

But the move for more movement might help Utah students achieve better health and perform better academically, according to nationally recognized scientific research.

"We may be doing absolutely the wrong thing by putting kids in school all day, putting them in the same seat and leaving them there too long," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

Hutchings hopes to change the way school officials, parents, teachers and students look at education.

Inspired by "SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," written by Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey, Hutchings said he believes Utah schools are doing kids harm by expecting only cognitive performance throughout the day.

"We have created a very sedentary lifestyle," he said. "Our schools are designed to be sedentary."

Without an opportunity to refuel the brain with physical activity, research has shown that humans lose the ability to focus, concentrate and think strategically, Hutchings said.

Ratey's book highlights the effects of vigorous physical activity on the brain, including how it improves thinking skills, behavior and concentration, and leads to better recall abilities.

The opposite has also been shown to be true — that a lack of exercise causes parts of the brain to turn off and not work properly, according to the study.

The bottom line is that regular exercise allows the brain to function better, Hutchings said.

Students at various schools throughout Utah have recently been engaged in research to determine whether increasing activity levels would actually result in better grades.

At Tolman Elementary School in Bountiful, kids in every grade are given extra opportunities to exercise together, in the morning and the afternoon. It's just 25 minutes of the day, but Principal David Pendergast has already seen a difference in the way students behave.

"They're really happy about what they're doing," he said. "And it's a visible change."

End-of-year test scores will be compared to those from last year in order to assess the value of added physical activity, Pendergast said. It is part of a pilot program being done at the school to help kids learn better, but also be more healthy.

"It's really something that we as a society need to look at, explore and find ways to solve," he said. "We are not helping our kids if we don't."

In a separate study performed at schools within the Granite School District, James Hannon, a professor with the University of Utah's Department of Exercise and Sport Science, said kids who participated in physical activity before math classes performed significantly better than their peers.

The local statistics are being gathered to test whether similar findings from the SPARK study can apply to Utah students and families, resulting in more efficient schooling and better outcomes, Hannon said.

So far, the most significant change in academic performance among students was recorded 30 minutes after vigorous physical activity, which Hannon said might signal "the ideal time for kids to be in a math class or other class where they're struggling."

And such a mental boon shouldn't be left to physical education classes alone. Hannon said an assortment of curriculum models could be implemented to incorporate physical activity with any subject, integrating academic learning so students are moving while they are learning.

But such methods would require a tremendous shift in the current trend.

Nationwide and in Utah, school districts have been trimming physical education classes, recess and intramural/after-school activity programs to make more time for academic subjects.

The decreased opportunity for activity, Hannon said, can partly be blamed on increased liability.

"You see more and more of the gyms being locked up after school because districts fear the liability if people get hurt," he said, pointing to his own observation.

Fewer officials are willing to work the extra hours to supervise such activities, Hannon said, "so there are fewer and fewer opportunities to be active."

Parents are also to blame.

Hutchings said many parents he has spoken to about physical activity in school are reminded of their own physical education classes decades ago, and the classes are not often recalled as positive experiences.

"Some people interpret P.E. to be an embarrassing, horrible experience," he said. "You don't want to get stinky and sweaty in front of other kids, and you do everything you can to not have to shower. It's historically been negative in most people's lives."

He expects parents to be his greatest competition in trying to pass legislation adding more physical activity time in schools.

But with the new scientific evidence that physical activity boosts mental performance, Hutchings said, "There is now an absolutely viable academic reason for us to help our children to be healthy," regardless of varying opinions on the matter.

The "revolutionary" lifestyle change, he said, will result in less money spent on health care in the future, as future generations grow up healthier and better equipped to compete for jobs.

Hannon said it wouldn't take much to provide cardiovascular exercise for students. Inexpensive equipment that often already exists in schools can be used to produce circuit training stations that help to get the heart rate up and keep it up for at least 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Tolman's program uses existing, new and old supplies to keep students physically engaged.

Pendergast said some teachers use overhead projectors already installed in classrooms to project various exercise videos found on the Internet, to keep kids active between subjects.

The Utah Department of Health developed the Gold Medal Schools program in 2001 using the State Office of Education’s core curriculum and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to address overweight and obesity in elementary schools. The program, which provides opportunities for students to walk or run around a track, keeping track of their progress, has reached more than 202,841 students and 8,871 teachers in 373 elementary schools across the state.

Children should get an hour of physical activity each day in order to be healthy, according to Let's Move, the comprehensive fitness initiative launched by first lady Michelle Obama to inspire a healthier nation.

"It's about having kids be more active before, during and after school," Hannon said, adding that adults could benefit from moving more, too.

"If all you do is sit all day and you don't get up and move or get a mental break, you start to lose focus, and you lose interest in your work," he said.

Hannon said he plans time in his day to "get up and do something different."

"It refocuses me and makes me much more efficient and productive," he said.

The days he doesn't incorporate exercise often end up being less productive and less rewarding.

"We think that activity helps kids perform better in school, improves their concentration and helps with learning disabilities, among other benefits," Intermountain Healthcare sports medicine specialist Dr. Elizabeth Joy said. "When it comes to exercise, none is bad, some is good and more is better."

Hutchings is working with Hannon to gather enough local data to inspire other lawmakers to invigorate education across the state. If enough people realize the benefits of the new brain science, Hutchings said he hopes to empower school districts and teachers with the flexibility they need to incorporate more activity into the daily curriculum.

"An active, physically fit kid is an academically superior kid in their ability to learn, retain and to function in a classroom environment," he said. "This has everything to do with helping kids have the best possible long-term advantage."

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