Georgia’s children are out of shape

Some 998,774 schoolchildren across the state of Georgia were tested by the Fitnessgram, a series of criterion-referenced physical evaluations. Children were tested in flexibility, aerobic capacity, muscular strength and body mass index. The results:

Aerobic capacity (as tested by a one-mile run or an interval-style run): 37 percent failed to reach the “health fitness zone” or HFZ.

Body Mass Index: (A ratio of height and weight) 43 percent of students were in an undesirable range.

Muscular strength, endurance and flexibility: 45 percent of 9th-graders and 45 percent of 5th-graders failed to attain satisfactory scores in two out of three of these categories.

Only 16 percent of a million Georgia schoolchildren were able to pass five basic tests of physical fitness, and 20 percent were unable to pass any of the tests, the state’s top public health leader said in a speech this week.

“Not only couldn’t they walk a mile, but they couldn’t touch their toes, and forget push-ups,” said Brenda Fitzgerald, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“This is a huge problem.”

The tests were administered by the governor’s Student Health and Physical Education Partnership (SHAPE), a coalition of education, health-care, government and nonprofit leaders dedicated to improving the state’s significant childhood obesity problem. They gave the tests last year to almost a million children from the fourth to the 12th grades in 97 percent of the state’s schools.

The tests measured flexibility, body/mass index, aerobic capacity (in a one-mile run/walk or in an interval run) and the ability to do push-ups and curl-ups.

Results of the tests were dispiriting to health leaders in a state with the second highest rate of childhood obesity. (Only Mississippi’s is higher.) In some ways the results make our children look like senior citizens. “What we’re seeing from a disease perspective [among children] are diseases normally seen in adults, including hypertension, high cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes,” said Marsha Davis, associate dean of outreach and engagement at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health and an expert in childhood obesity.

“A child should have the flexibility to touch their toes,” she added.

Fitzgerald spoke about the fitness of the state’s children during a State of Public Health speech Thursday at the University of Georgia. The address included some good news, in particular a positive report from the public health department’s efforts to bring down premature birthrates in certain regions.

Dr. Fitzgerald also announced a plan to collaborate with the Department of Education to add 30 minutes of physical activity to the school day for every elementary school child.

Adding that extra 30 minutes will be a challenge in schools that are already pressed to raise test scores and cover more academic material. Therese McGuire, health and physical education program specialist with the Georgia Department of Education, said some Georgia schools, including Sope Creek Elementary School in Marietta, are already coming up with ways to get kids moving.

When children are dropped off ahead of time at school, volunteers at Sope Creek organize games in the gym, lead children in Zumba classes or supervise children who are running and walking laps outside. “You can even incorporate some physical activity into the academic learning piece,” said McGuire. An example: When teaching children how to compare elevated and resting heart rates, biology teachers can get them jumping to drive their heart rates up, then have children measure themselves.

“What Georgia has to do is not just have the state do certain things like change rules for schools’ lunches,” Fitzgerald told her audience. “We need every segment of society to make some changes, and that includes changing what we do, what our children do, what our parents do, what our schools do and, ultimately, what society does … The mantra is 30 minutes every day, every child, every school in Georgia. And we’re going to be there … I’m convinced we can do it.”