MARQUETTE - A recent federal study echoes concerns by Michigan health professionals that link the lack of time set aside for physical and health education classes in K-8 schools to increasing childhood obesity.
The Government Accountability Office study of public schools indicates that while sports opportunities for students have generally increased, the frequency of physical education classes has decreased. It's a problem that concerns area health officials.
"Obesity prevention is very critical in our school systems." said Dr. Teresa Frankovich, medical director of the Marquette County Board of Health.
Kids at Birchview Elementary are shown in physical education class. Bills are being proposed to mandate a required amount of physical education class for K-8 to try to curb childhood obesity. (Journal file photos)
Frankovich said increasing school physical education can be one part of the effort to increase physical activity.
"But we should also be looking at other ways to do so,"?she said. "Such as the ability of kids to walk or bike to school, increasing physical education throughout the school day by finding ways to get kids up and moving during their regular classes."
Katherine Knoll of Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan, a coalition dedicated to reducing obesity, said the GAO study is relevant to the state's situation. She cited three pending pieces of legislation to address concerns raised by the Department of Community Health.
She said more active and health-educated youth are crucial to curbing obesity.
"Children spend the majority of their time in schools," Knoll said. "That being said, it's important that we work with the Department of Education in making sure kids are active while they're there."
Knoll said her coalition teamed up with a survey research firm to conduct a statewide poll to determine if there was widespread support for the proposed legislation.
The bills, introduced by Reps. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, Richard Hammel, D-Mount Morris Township, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, would require schools to provide a specific number of hours of health and physical education classes. Schools that fail to meet the requirements would lose state aid.
Schools must offer physical education for grades K-8, but there's no minimum number of hours. Bauer's bill would require 30 minutes at least two days per week for elementary students and 45 minutes per day for middle schoolers.
Hammel's bill would require elementary students to have at least 15 hours per year of health education and middle schoolers to have at least 50 hours. Tlaib's bill would provide funding for the new requirements.
The legislation followed comments by both Gov. Rick Snyder and Community Health Director Olga Dazzo about the state's obesity problem. Snyder also spoke about the trend in his State of the State Address in January, calling it "disturbing" and encouraging personal responsibility in dealing with obesity.
Knoll said that the proposed legislation, which is awaiting a vote in the House, will help children understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how to make healthy choices.
"Every child should have the benefit of equal education on health and wellness," she said. "It prepares them to be personally responsible for their own health and become successful, productive citizens."
Bauer's bill mandating minimum physical education requirements could pose some problems for school administrators.
"It's really a Catch 22," said Deborah Veiht, Marquette Area Public Schools superintendent. "If the state of Michigan passes a bill that requires a mandate for more physical education courses, then inevitably other programs will have to be cut back."
MAPS' three elementary schools have physical education courses 45 minutes per week. Bothwell Middle School students have the option to take a nine-week physical education course. High school students are required to take one semester of physical education and health courses to graduate according to Veiht.
Angela Minicuci, communications specialist for MDCH, said the state has about 800,000 obese children. She said obesity contributes to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes while affecting student achievement inside and outside of the classroom.
Matt Keiser can be reached at 906-228-2500. ext. 243.