Statistics show the program could not start soon enough because the state is in sorry shape. North Carolina adults rank 49th in the nation for participation in physical activity.
Physical inactivity will cost the state $180 million in the Year 2000. Adding to the pounds, one in four kindergartners is obese, which does not bode well for the future.
"We have the epidemic of obesity, it's a true epidemic with our children, as well as our adults today," says Dr. Joanne Harrell, a UNC researcher who conducted alandmark study of cardiovascular healthin children.
Young energy burns in a happy way on school playgrounds, but it may be the only place kids feel that burn. The state's children are out of shape, and for the most part, parents are a sorry example.
"When I got home, I used to climb a tree," says P.E. Specialist Frances Mitchell. "Kids don't climb trees anymore."
Schools may be the first step to solving the problem of obesity. Today's fifth graders are learning very adult lessons about resting heart rates, zones and recovery rates.
For some, it may be a matter of survival. Risk factors for heart disease are showing up in third graders. Type two diabetes, obesity, inactivity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can even be found in some 8-year-olds.
"They're inside hooked to TV's, to Nintendos, to Playstations, and they're not as physical," says parent Kathleen Mutschler-Watkins. "It's scary."
"Increasing physical activity and maybe improving eating habits with our children is a bigger problem than just a family problem," Harrell said.
She says if parents think their children are active enough, they are probably wrong.
"The teachers were very close to the real activity level of the children," Harrell said. "The parents were way off."
Unfortunately, there are fewer teachers of physical education. Only 40 percent of North Carolina schools have a certified P.E. specialist, and there is not a single school district in the country where P.E. is mandatory anymore.
"[Physical Education] is just as important, if not more important, than the math and the science and the social studies, because you have to educate their bodies as well as their minds," Mitchell says. "If you don't have a healthy body, a healthy mind isn't going to make any difference at all."
Today's P.E. classes focus more on individual than team sports such as bowling, golf, tennis and other games children can play well into adulthood. They are also games that parents can play with their children.
"Not only do kids not know how to have fun, but many parents have forgotten how to have fun," Harrell said.
Harrell says parents can play a major role in their children's physical fitness.
"Parents can take the lead in their own homes, and also by working with the family," Harrell said. "And they can help by letting their wishes be known in the school district, because the schools will listen."
Harrell says it is easy to get started. She suggests teaching the kids how to play games like kick the can or flashlight tag, and then playing along with them.
She also encourages parents to watch what types of snacks they buy, and to pay more attention to the amount of physical activity their children are getting.
Most people have heard the expression "a healthy body leads to a healthy mind." Dr. Harrell's next project will attempt to prove or disprove that adage.
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