Student Physical Fitness Scores Barely Budge

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
(photo: Matt Slocum, Associated Press)

California’s unfit fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are more unfit than last year or the year before that but are still marginally more fit than five years ago. None of the news from the state’s Department of Education sounds very inspiring.

The good news is that 99.2% of seventh- and ninth-graders scored at the highest levels in at least one of six fitness standards. Fifth-graders weren’t far behind at 98.7%.

But only 37.6% of ninth-graders were really fit, hitting their marks in all six categories. And they were far ahead of seventh-graders (32.5%) and fifth-graders (26.4%).

The tests measure aerobic capacity, flexibility, abdominal strength, trunk strength, upper-body strength and body fat. A lower percentage of kids need improvement in almost every category and a higher percentage perform at the highest level as they grow older.

In general, kids were the worst at upper-body strength and aerobic capacity, and the best at trunk and abdominal strength. Not a lot of kids reached the top level in body fat but they had low percentages in need of improvement. Flexibility was near the middle.

The most marked improvement over the past three years was in body fat. It was up 6.5% for fifth-graders, 5.4% for seventh-graders and 5.1% for ninth-graders. Aerobic capacity was the only other area students were modestly improved (0.5%, 1.0% and 0.8%, respectively) in each of the three grades.  

State schools haves been conducting the fitness tests for 16 years, beginning just around the time the California Center for Public Health Advocacy warned about an “epidemic” of overweight, unfit children (pdf). “These conditions are dooming our children to serious health problems now and in the future, and saddling the state’s economy with exorbitant and preventable long-term costs,” the independent nonprofit group said in its report.

Four years ago, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a high school cross-country and fitness coach for 26 years, started a school campaign using celebrity athletes to visit campuses and encourage kids to exercise more, drink lots of water, and eat fruits and vegetables.

That worked as well then as it would now. The numbers have barely changed since 2011. Physical education doesn’t get much funding. Kids don’t eat very well or get much exercise outside of school.

Back in 2008, some scientists were blaming obese people for screwing up the environment by requiring more food and burning more transportation fuel. Critics pointed out that the food consumption numbers are dwarfed by the amount of food we toss in the garbage. Scapegoating overweight folks seems particularly unfair since it’s more likely that the reverse is true.

A study published last year in Environmental Health Perspectives linked the body mass index (BMI) of children to exposure to secondhand smoke and traffic. The study looked at 3,318 children in 12 Southern California communities and controlled for a lot of factors, including gender, parental income and education, and accessible open space.

They found children who were exposed to the smoke and traffic had BMIs 2.15 higher than other kids. Exposure to just secondhand smoke kicked it up 0.85 and just traffic 0.80. A normal adult has a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. Higher than that is overweight and 30 is obese.

“The finding challenges the view that obesity is due solely to increased caloric intake and reduced physical activity,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Rob McConnell of the University of Southern California, told the New York Times. “That’s not the whole story.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Fitness: Only 1 in 3 Seventh-Graders Pass (by Sharon Noguchi, San Jose Mercury News)

Obesity Is Tied to Pollutants (by Nicholas Bakalar, New York Times)

Cuts in Phys Ed Take Toll: Only One-Third of California Students Are Fit (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

The Southern California Children’s Health Study (Environmental Health Perspectives)

PFT Results (California Department of Education)

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