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Does Phys Ed Really Matter?


Ralph Montalvo

Ralph Montalvo is focused on getting students interested in their own health.

Ralph Montalvo wasn't always a fourth-degree black belt in Karate, a daily runner and a self-confessed fitness nut. In fact, during his first year in high school, overweight and unable to do a single pull-up, he was called a "fat pig" by his physical education teacher in front of the entire class.

Tough love that worked? After all, mostly as a result of that comment, Montalvo not only dramatically shaped up, but went on to earn an M.A. in Physical Education at Teachers College in 1998, followed by an M.Ed. in the Curriculum and Teaching of Physical Education in 2002. He's currently completing a doctorate at TC, writing his dissertation on the role of student attitude in physical education classes, while also serving as Assistant Vice Principal in charge of physical education and health at the William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City.

Still, Montalvo wishes his high school teacher's delivery had been different: "He was right, because I was very heavy, but I just didn't feel good about him saying that in a gymnasium full of students."

Today Montalvo has introduced a program at William Cullen Bryant that's designed to interest students in their own physical health without alienating them first. Among its features are a variety of non-traditional activity options that include golf, performing dance and even bowling for students in tenth grade and above.

"I want kids to be able to leave school wanting to partake in physical activity," he says. "Whatever that physical activity is. As long as they're active."

Getting kids to participate in physical activity and, more broadly, getting policymakers to recognize the value of exercise and its importance in school curricula are important areas of research at Teachers College-'"particularly as schools across the country retrench on extracurriculars in order to prepare students for proficiency testing in reading and math. In fact-'"Ralph Montalvo's experience notwithstanding-'"research by Stephen Silverman, TC Professor of Education, and Prithwi-Raj Subramaniam of Ithaca College suggests that the attitude students develop in school towards physical education can play a very large role in whether or not their interest in physical education endures. The most important motivators for students aren't competition or the opinion of peers, Silverman says, but instead, whether students enjoy physical activity and think it will be good for them. And while it is nearly impossible to alienate kids with natural physical ability, those who are less physically gifted often end up receiving very little actual skill development, in part because competition is a greater priority than skill development.

"We never teach swimming by having kids dive off the three meter board and seeing how it goes," Silverman says. "But we teach lots of other skills that way. And we shouldn't. We know better. We should be helping kids learn basic skills progressively throughout the 12 grades, starting with the equivalent of blowing bubbles and doing a prone float."

Thus Silverman and his departmental colleagues educate aspiring phys ed teachers at TC to make their lessons work for all students and not just for the jocks-'"a particularly important reminder in a line of work that tends to self-select for the sports-minded and naturally athletic. 

"I'm very much in favor of physical education that's not just game playing, where people are learning skills, physical activity and how to play in physical activity programs," Silverman says. "I think game playing does more to discourage children from physical activity than anything we could do." 

OK-'"but why, at a time when the nation is focused on closing the education achievement gap between rich and poor, should sports, or even exercise, be a priority for the schools?

Answer One is that the U.S. is fast becoming a nation of overweight kids with alarming health problems that could compromise and shorten their lives and cost society a great deal of money.

"We now have nine million overweight children in the U.S., or about 16 percent of the nation's children and teenagers," says John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education at TC and Adjunct Professor of Public Health in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "That's triple the total in 1980."

Perhaps the most frightening consequence of the obesity epidemic is the rapidly growing epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome among adolescents. Typically observed in middle-aged adults, this is a condition in which the body either fails to respond properly to insulin or simply fails to produce enough insulin to help metabolize blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents was virtually unheard of a decade ago. But of those newly diagnosed patients with diabetes today, at least eight percent are now children with Type 2. The long-term complications from untreated diabetes can include nerve damage, blindness, kidney failure and the need for amputation of limbs. The national financial burden from the disease already stands at $132 billion per year, including about $40 billion in lost productivity, and the figure is expected to rise to $200 billion by 2020.

Schools are a logical place to begin reversing what Allegrante describes as the coming "tsunami" of chronic disease stemming from poor health behaviors-'"particularly because, as he himself has helped to demonstrate, there is growing evidence suggesting a connection between physical activity and academic achievement. Studies show that physical activity and participation in sport boost self-discipline, reduce stress, strengthen peer relationships, enhance self-confidence and self-esteem, and improve mental alertness. It is also clear that physical activity gets more oxygen going to the brain and fosters the release of endorphins, possibly enhancing cognitive performance. And studies by the California Department of Education-'"along with Allegrante's own research, which is being funded by a Fulbright Award and conducted in Iceland among over 5,000 children and teenagers-'"strongly suggest that students who are physically fit actually score higher on tests and other measures of academic achievement.

Allegrante, co-author of an "action textbook" for teens on health, has taken those findings on the road, delivering presentations with titles such as "No Child Left With A Big Behind: The Role of Health Education in Addressing the Epidemic of Overweight Adolescents." His bottom line (pun intended): schools should provide the additional resources-'"from quality health instruction to wholesome snacks-'"necessary to help children become healthier.

"The history of schools in America as a venue to address the ills of society goes back more than 50 years," he says. "Young people are clearly facing very pressing problems of health status. We know parents and families can't do this alone. And from a public health perspective, schools represent a captive audience."

Ralph Montalvo agrees. "I tell students my story all the time," he says. "And I explain to them it's not where you start, it's where you finish. You don't have to go to a gym and work out two to three hours a day, seven days a week. It's not like that at all. It's just being consistent and doing something for a half hour to 45 minutes, three to four times a week. Doing it in moderation, but continually doing it."  

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