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Sweating the Details

TC's Movement Sciences program is building the case for why physical education and activity matter -- and how to make them succeed
By Patricia Lamiell

Is physical education a thing of the past in public schools?

Fewer than 20 percent of K-12 schools nationwide provide their students with opportunities to engage in physical activity before, during or after school, according to a survey released in October by the American Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD). Along with art, music and even history, both the study and the pursuit of exercise are being squeezed out of the school day because of deep budget cuts and a heavy emphasis on language arts and math, the two subjects most heavily tested for compliance with federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

To Stephen Silverman and his colleagues in TC’s Movement Science and Education/Kinesiology program, that’s plain wrong-headed thinking.

“You cannot improve academic achievement, well-being  or health without a focus on physical activity and physical education,” says Silverman, Professor of Education, chair of the College’s Department of Biobehavioral Sciences. “That’s just so clear.”

Studies have shown that physical education and activity can boost students’ cognitive skills, contribute to overall health and wellbeing, and instill a life-long appreciation for physical activity. There is also solid evidence that kids who are active get better test scores in reading and math.

Silverman, his faculty colleagues and students in the Movement Sciences Program are working to further document those links in various ways. Faculty members Carol Ewing-Garber, Andrew Gordon and Tara McIsaac study the physiology underlying human movement; how mechanical laws apply to our bodies; and the behavioral and motivational issues that affect our pursuit of physical activity. They investigate the benefits of physical education and exercise, not only for healthy children and adults but also those who are impaired by injury or disease. They also develop and test ways to apply their research in clinics, communities and schools, including how to structure and teach courses and programs.
Newcomer Laura Azzarito, who joined the department this fall, studies the socioeconomic forces that have an impact on people’s sense of empowerment as they engage in physical activity.

All of these efforts extend a long tradition of research and instruction at Teachers College, the site of the first graduate program in physical education and also the birthplace of “movement science” as a term and concept. The department was established in 1901 under the deanship of James Russell, with Thomas Denison Wood as its first chair. The first master’s degree was awarded to a woman in 1910 and to a man in 1916, reflecting the field’s historical shift in gender balance. 

The College has since claimed a succession of leading figures in the field, including:
  • Charles H. McCloy, a professor of physical education at the University of Iowa who earned a doctorate in 1932 from TC. McCloy was a strong proponent of physical training and education and is considered to be the father of kinesthetic research, which focuses on the body sense that detects position, weight and the movement of muscles and tendons.
  • Jesse Feiring Williams, a contemporary of McCloy, who developed and directed the physical education program at TC. Williams believed an “education through the physical,” emphasizing the impact of physical education on character and the intellect as well as on organic and psychomotor outcomes.
  • Clifford Lee Bronwell, who was chairman of the department of physical education at TC during the 1940s. Brownwell collaborated with Williams, and saw health and fitness of young people as a matter of national and economic security.
  • Josephine Rathbone, a TC faculty member who was a founding member of the American College of Sports Medicine in 1954
  • Antoinette Gentile, Professor Emerita, an early proponent of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can reorganize and repair itself following trauma.

Like those earlier scholars, the five current faculty members TC’s Movement Sciences program have excelled in different sub-specialties.

In addition to preparing physical education teachers, Silverman, who was recently named a fellow in the American Education Research Association earlier this year and delivered a lecture last March as the AAHPERD 2011 Alliance Scholar, conducts research focused on K-12 physical education. He studies how students learn physical skills and develop positive attitudes and confidence about being physically active throughout their lives. Most K-12 physical education programs don’t cultivate such a combined focus, he says. And while trained physical education teachers are professional, skilled and well prepared, some public school physical education programs that have survived budget cuts nevertheless save money by using  by non-expert teachers.

“If we want children to be skilled and engaged in physical activity, we have to teach it right,” Silverman says. Teachers should choose the curriculum carefully and develop a sequence of instruction, so that children learn in small steps, in one-on-one or small-group settings, where they can feel successful. “In this way, they will develop skill and better attitudes.”

The doctoral programs in Movement Sciences and Kinesiology were ranked fourth last year among 61 kinesiology doctoral programs in the country by the National Academy of Kinesiology. (Kinesiology is the study of human movement.) The ranking is especially remarkable considering TC’s programs were the smallest of any in the top ten.  The programs ranked first in the country in the placement of doctoral students in higher education positions.

Garber, Associate Professor of Movement Sciences, also explores and documents the importance of building a positive attitude toward physical activity, but in the context of adult physical fitness and rehabilitation programs. A former clinical exercise physiologist who has worked with patients requiring physical rehabilitation after an illness or accident, she joined the department four years ago to combine research and the translation of research to practice—a synthesis that is unusual in higher education programs but typical of the important work done in the Movement Sciences and Education/Kinesiology program and in other disciplines at TC.

With her students, Garber, who coordinates the Applied Exercise Physiology specialization within the Movement Sciences program, uses TC’s Applied Exercise Physiology Lab to perform non-invasive tests (such as blood pressure, heart and lung function) on healthy, exercising adults, as a benchmark for devising appropriate exercise plans for disabled people. She is working on a national research project with the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons to identify the types and quantity of exercises that will help patients with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease affecting select motor neurons and muscles. In a separate study, she is tracking the physical recovery of kidney transplant patients.

Building on the work of Josephine Rathbone, Garber headed a committee of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) that developed new guidelines for caregivers prescribing exercise for healthy adults. She authored a well-publicized ACSM paper released this summer, which recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise per week. For the first time, the panel also stated that a little time exercising is better than none. Also new was its recommendation that people minimize their sedentary time by walking around every hour or so throughout the day.

“Honestly, the biggest bang for your buck, if you’re sedentary, is moderate exercise, because if it’s more pleasurable, you’re more likely to do it,” Garber said in an interview. “The message really is, ‘do something—and if you already exercise, do a little more.’ ”

Andrew Gordon, Professor of Movement Science and Neuroscience and Education and coordinator of all the the Movement Sciences programs, focuses his research primarily on children with impairments. Through TC’s Center for Cerebral Palsy Research, which has been at the forefront of research on the complex process of how the brain directs hand function, Gordon investigates the neural mechanisms underlying hand impairment in children with cerebral palsy and is pioneering new treatments for strengthening the limbs of children with cerebral palsy. Each summer, the Center welcomes a small group children from all over the world for a week-long “Cerebral Palsy Camp” at TC. Building on the neuroplasticity work of Annette Gentile, the camp has recently used trans-cranial magnetic stimulation to determine whether the repetitive physical exercises that Gordon has prescribed for the children are helping the brain repair itself.

Tara McIsaac, Assistant Professor of Movement Science and Education, studies the mechanics and often subtle physical effects of exercise, both in healthy people and people with impairments. McIsaac also coordinates the doctoral specialization in Occupational Therapy within the Movement Sciences Program in a combined effort with the Occupational Therapy Programs at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. She teaches professional seminars for physical and occupational therapists on a novel treatment approach for people with Parkinson’s disease.

After working as a physical therapist for 25 years, McIsaac decided to study the brain science behind injury so that she could help her patients continue to improve through exercise after leaving a hospital or rehabilitation center. While earning her doctorate at the University of Arizona, she learned to apply rigorous research methods to the study of how the brain controls body movements. One of her research interests is “dual tasking,” or how the brain directs the body to do two things at once, such as listening and taking notes.

McIsaac and her students do their research in the College’s Motor Learning and Control Lab, which is equipped with instruments that measure different voluntary movements by a healthy body—a foot hitting the floor in a dance movement, or finger motion—and the force with which they are made. The lab also has an “eye tracker” to study hand-eye coordination and machines that record brain signals in order to measure the neuromotor control processes governing skilled performance in everyday functional behaviors, as well as in sport  and dance.

McIsaac’s hope is that, by learning how a normally developed body, with directions from a healthy brain, performs certain physical functions, she and her students can design therapies to help an impaired body heal.

Azzarito, a native Italian who did her graduate work at the state universities of Louisiana and Maryland, has done research showing that school-based physical education, when well taught, can empower children and help adolescents and preteens to feel competent and comfortable in their bodies. Azzarito says her research has shown that physical education and movement can help girls transcend gender, sexuality, race, social class, cultural, and educational stereotypes. It can also challenge and confront homophobia in sports, develop positive body images, and help kids break through preconceptions about innate athletic ability, she says. Taking a page from John Dewey, she explores how to construct curricula that “really connect with young people’s lives, at home and at school.”

It’s an approach that those making school budget decisions would do well to keep in mind.

Published Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012


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