A Nation of Couch Potatoes?

Along with eating bigger portions of lower-quality foods, Americans – and children, in particular – are much less physically active than even 10 or 20 years ago. Computer, TV and video games command four or more hours of a typical child’s day. Kids are also spending more time inside, whether in a classroom, in front of a screen or in an extracurricular program.

In schools, physical education has become more the exception than the rule. Less than 50 percent of U.S. schools offer PE and only a handful of states have daily PE requirements for students. Illinois has the most comprehensive requirements, mandating physical education every day for all K-12 students. But even that state allows recess to be counted as physical education and has waived the PE requirement for some schools, says Judy Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).

Yet, more states are focusing on the need for PE, and the programs are getting better, Young says.

“It’s sort of a best-of-times, worst-of-times scenario,” she says. “There is increasing awareness for better and more physical activity, better levels of fitness and consciousness-raising about the implications of not doing this. But at the same time, we have continued pressures against physical education, such as continuing academic pressure, continuing involvement in sedentary activities and reduction of the need to move to just get through the day.”

Kim Libbey teaches phys-ed to kindergartners through eighth-graders. While she stresses the importance of good nutrition and daily exercise to the kids early on, Libbey says it’s a hard sell – particularly to children for whom twice-weekly PE classes are the only strenuous exercise they get.

“In any given class, there’s close to 50 percent of the kids who are overweight,” she says. “Kids can’t see down the road and what the future will bring; they think they’re invincible. No matter what you tell them, they’ll hear it, but it doesn’t mean they’ll buy into it.”

And children’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles have a disturbing result. “It’s scary when you look at some of these kids and they get tired doing 30 seconds of exercise – I mean, really tired,” Libbey says. “They just quit.”

Educators, she says, need parents’ help to set a good example and guide children toward regular physical activity and good nutrition.