Haywood schools fighting for fitness

By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Mar 07, 2014
Photo by: Jessi Stone Tuscola High School senior Paul Leveritt works out in the school's new state-of-the-art fitness center.

One out of every three children in the United States is overweight or obese, which significantly increases their risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer over their lifetimes.

To combat the growing problem, and associated health care costs in the future, the federal government issued its first-ever physical activities guidelines in 2008.

But a recent survey shows that only one in four children between 12 and 15 are meeting U.S. fitness guidelines, which include an hour or more of moderate to vigorous activity every day.

The latest National Youth Fitness Survey, conducted by a division of the CDC, was the first national study on youth fitness in America conducted since the mid-80s. The study collected 2012 data from 1,640 children ages 3 to 15 about their physical activities and fitness levels and included a household interview and a physical activity and fitness examination in a mobile examination center.

Haywood County Schools are doing what they can to meet the state curriculum and federal guidelines, but middle and high school physical education teachers say there is only so much they can do since they have less than an hour with students each day.

“In a perfect world students would take P.E. all year,” said Jennifer Parton, a P.E. and health teacher at Waynesville Middle School. “But we know it’s a balancing act with everything else they need to do.” She said she focuses on realistic fitness activities that her students will hopefully carry on through high school and later in life.

At WMS, students have to take P.E. and health one semester of each year, but they can choose to take elective P.E. classes. But once students get to high school, Nathan Messer, P.E. teacher at Tuscola High School, said students only have to take P.E. their ninth grade year. After that, physical education classes are optional.

The challenge for most P.E. teachers is to get students to want to participate in physical activities outside of the classroom. WMS P.E. teacher Charlie Edwards said he tries to incorporate as many different activities for his students as he can, including volleyball, badminton, dance, golfing and tennis in addition to the more popular sorts like basketball, football, baseball and soccer.

“We do that to try to expose them to as many lifetime sports as possible in hopes that they will find something they like to do,” he said.

Edwards said the P.E. participation rate was 99 percent — although ability levels naturally fluctuate. The school does three pre and post tests on students during the semester. These tests allow teachers to assess the students’ cardiovascular health.

“The pre tests tell us what we need to do to improve their fitness level,” he said. “Then we help them from wherever they are.”

Students also keep a journal throughout the semester to self-monitor their progress. If students can do a few more pushups at the end of the semester than they did at the beginning, it’s good progress — especially if a student couldn’t do any during the pre test.

But teachers will always be going up against other curricular activities, bad eating habits, video games and sedentary lifestyles at home.

“Our biggest challenge is fast food,” Messer said. “You walk out of these (school) doors and there’s five fast food places these kids go to on their way home.”

But Haywood County Schools have been fortunate in the last few years to receive a federal Physical Education Program (PEP) grant to give students more options for improving their health. The three-year grant for about $1.68 million has supplied Tuscola, Pisgah and Central high schools with new, state-of-the-art fitness centers.

“It’s very exciting to have, and the kids love it,” Messer said. “It gives them an introduction into what they’ll do after graduation. Some of these kids have never had the opportunity to go to a fitness center because of the cost.”

The new centers are equipped with ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, rowers, free weights and a big screen TV to show work out videos. Before having the fitness center, Messer said he had to be pretty creative when coming up with different activities for his fitness classes.

The schools’ P.E. teachers are responsible for collecting a lot of data during the grant period to report back to the federal government. While it is time-consuming, it provides a better look at how the district is doing.

Data from last year shows that students who engaged in 60 minutes of daily physical activity increased from 10 percent after year one to 56 percent at the end of year two. Students who achieved age-appropriate cardiovascular fitness levels are up to 51 percent compared to the base rate of 42 percent. Students who consumed fruit two or more times per day, and vegetables three or more times per day increased from 5 percent to 48 percent.