A 2011 state law requiring 30 minutes of physical activity a day for elementary students was supposed to mark a new tool in the fight against childhood obesity – but in reality it did little more than reinforce the status quo, an I-News examination found.
The reason: The measure was so gutted during the legislative process that it has meant virtually no meaningful changes in the way elementary schools are operated. The standard imposed by the law – which allows recess to count as physical activity time – was already being met by districts across the state.
Two years later, the school day looks exactly the same for students across the state as it did before the law was passed.
“We didn’t change anything because we were already meeting it to begin with,” said Dave Eichman, director of athletics and physical education for Colorado Springs School District 11.
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That sentiment was echoed over and over again by officials in the 10 largest Colorado districts – which account for more than half of the state’s 863,561 public school students – the I-News inquiry revealed. Checks with smaller districts by I-New showed the same thing.
Still, supporters believe the law marked an important change in Colorado by instituting a standard where none previously existed.
“We felt like it was a step in the right direction,” said Reilly Pharo of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group that backed the measure. “We know that obesity policy is complex, and it’s bigger than what happens at the state Capitol.”
A far more encompassing measure was originally envisioned in an effort to fight the burgeoning child obesity problem – a growing concern among health professionals and policy makers who have seen a dramatic rise in the percentage of young people who are heavy. That reality concerns health officials – an obese child is at greater risk of such things as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea, and is more likely to grow up to be an obese adult. In addition, obese children can suffer social discrimination.
“For kids, it has not only health consequences, but it has emotional consequences, too,” said Janet Fulton, a lead epidemiologist and expert in physical activity at the Centers for Disease Control Prevention. “It is that double-edged sword.”
In 1980, about 7 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 11 were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2010, that number had jumped to 18 percent. Among adolescents ages 12 to 19, the jump was similar – from 5 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2010.
Colorado has not been immune to the problem, although the data here is less clear-cut.
For example, the Colorado Childhood Survey, conducted by the state health department, found that about 16 percent of children ages 1 to 14 were obese in 2011. But a different survey of high-school teen-agers showed that about 7 percent of those students were obese that same year.
At the same time, other data paints a bleaker picture among children in a state ranked as the “fittest” by virtue of the fact that its adult obesity rate is the lowest in the country.
When it comes to childhood obesity, Colorado ranks 23rd of the 50 states, according to the CDC’s latest data. That data, which dates to 2007, showed that a little more than 14 percent of the state’s children were obese.
Other trends portend trouble on the horizon.
Latino children, who have overweight rates 60 percent higher than white children, according to the federal Office of Minority Health, are the fastest growing segment of the elementary school population. And the percentage of poor children, also more likely to be overweight, entering the state’s elementary schools is also climbing.
Determining what constitutes “overweight” and “obese” requires determining what is known as body mass index – a formula that takes into account an individual’s height and weight. In adults, it’s a simple calculation: Anyone with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight; anyone with a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese.
In children, the calculation is more complicated. Although the determination is still based on BMI, it includes a comparison to other children the same age and gender. A child is considered overweight with a BMI between the 85th percentile and 94th percentile as compared to children of the same age and gender. A child who is obese has a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher when compared to children of the same age and gender.
Against that backdrop, legislators drafted a measure that would have required each district to formally report how it was incorporating physical activity into the daily routine for elementary students. It also proposed minimum standards for what had to be reported – including the physical education curriculum used by schools, the number of minutes each week that students spent on things like exercise programs, recess and fitness breaks, and the qualifications of those who supervised students in physical activity. And it would have required the Colorado Department of Education to report the collected information and correlate it with the academic performance information for each elementary school.
But opponents, including the Colorado Association of School Boards and several school districts, chafed at the potential cost and at the intrusion of the state into an issue that many believe is one of local control. The proposal also banged into the philosophical question of who is responsible for making sure kids lead healthy lives – parents or schools?
Among the opponents were the Jefferson County, Adams 12 and Boulder Valley school districts.
“It was creating a mandate,” said Briggs Gamblin, spokesman for Boulder Valley Schools. “That was the height of the cuts, and we felt that we couldn’t support even well-intentioned programs at that time that were mandating new programs on school districts, many of them much more cash-strapped than us.”
The bill was amended to simply require that each school board institute a policy stating that all elementary students would have “opportunities” for the equivalent of 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Those opportunities could include gym class, recess, stretch breaks, and field trips that involve walking.
“It was a great bill in concept, but it got watered down,” said state Sen. Irene Aguilar, one of the measure’s sponsors who is also a primary care physician.
Because there are no reporting requirements, there is no way to know with certainty exactly how schools are complying.
Sen. Aguilar said that she hopes that the legislature can come back at some point and push for more substantive changes.
Research has shown that physical activity is critical to maintaining a healthy body weight in adults – and, conversely, that it is almost impossible to do it with diet alone.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans calls for children to get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical movement a day. That means moving with enough intensity to get winded. A variety of activities that promote aerobic development and muscle and bone strengthening is recommended.
And research has shown benefits far beyond healthy body weight – things like attention, behavior and academic performance all improve when kids are active, according to multiple studies.
Kim Gorman, director of the weight management program at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, pointed out that even in the best possible scenario – every student getting 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous movement every day – it would account for only half that is called for. And it would account for only about 46 percent of the year.
But even the best case has problems. In some schools, recess is an extension of lunch – meaning students who spend more time eating can end up with less time to move around. And recess doesn’t require a student to do anything – drive by an elementary when the kids are outside, and it’s not unusual to see groups of them standing around, or even sitting on the blacktop, talking.
Still, Gorman and others argued that it’s critical to get youngsters moving, and it doesn’t have to be running laps.
Gorman’s idea is simple: She’d have 30 minutes of open playground time before and after school each day. And then she’d let the kids do whatever they wanted so long as they were moving – everything from jumping rope to playing basketball to dancing.
“It can be dancing – it absolutely can be dancing,” Gorman said. “It doesn’t have to be a punitive thing that kids don’t like.”
Data analysis and additional reporting by Burt Hubbard. I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. For more information: inewsnetwork.org/. Contact Kevin Vaughan at firstname.lastname@example.org/ or 303-446-4936.
This article was conceived and produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, which is administered by The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.