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Physical Education teacher wants nation to re-evaluate gym class

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Gwenne Culpepper, UNI Office of Marketing & Public Relations, (319) 273-2761

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Lori Smith remembers, with little fondness, her days as a young girl in physical education class. 'I have nightmares of my childhood phys. ed. class -- and I was one of the athletic kids. I remember those kids who got left out of the games, and how sad that was for them.'

Now a physical education instructor at the University of Northern Iowa's Malcolm Price Laboratory School, Smith is determined to change the course forever. 'I'll never teach the way I was taught. If every kid in my class can't at least attempt what I've planned, then it's not worth putting on my lesson plan.'

So often, she said, K-12 physical education classes focus too heavily on team sports. There's little reason for this, especially once students reach high school. 'Almost half the high school students in the nation don't participate in after-school sports programs, and only 1 percent of the population participates in team sports after age 24. The focus in physical education class needs to be on movement concepts and fitness activities that lead to personal wellness. We should be teaching students how to keep themselves healthy for life. That cannot be done with dodge ball.'

Over the past 20-30 years, physical education has played a smaller and smaller role in the school day. Even though the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends children get 60 minutes of physical activity each day, schools continue to cut the time allotted for physical education classes. 'By doing this, we decrease the value placed on physical activity for our youths and adults,' Smith said.

Smith, named the 2001 Iowa elementary physical education teacher of the year, says obesity in this country has reached epidemic proportions. 'It's a societal phenomenon. Technology has made our lives easier, but it has also made us unhealthier. We no longer have to walk to work, or even get up to change the channel. As a result, we've become very sedentary.'

She sites high use of computers and video games as another factor that increases the sedentary lifestyle.

Smith would like to see more schools doing what Price Lab does: offering quality daily physical education for students. 'We are responsible for children's well-being, for teaching them how to take care of themselves. School is a primary place for doing that. And parents and families have to validate that role too, by modeling healthy active lifestyles.'

She continued, 'We've gotten to a point where we just want to take a pill for everything and we don't want to work hard. We're sedentary,' Smith said. 'But my concern is that if we continue with our sedentary lifestyles, we're going to see some severe health issues, like more people having heart attacks in their 20s and 30s.'

Smith and her school are recipients of a $155,000 National School Fitness Foundation research grant that comes in the form of state-of-the-art equipment like universal weight machines, ellipticals and treadmills, and blood pressure and body-fat percentage assessment apparatus. During January, students in sixth through 12th grade will participate in special activities, all designed to teach personal wellness.