The importance of a good education cannot be underestimated. Children spend their most formative years attending school full time, and it is vital that the education and experiences received there are sufficient for preparing students for the complete range of life situations that lie ahead of them. Schools focus on the development of academic skills in traditional subjects such as language, mathematics, and the sciences. In fact, schools depend on the achievement of their students in these subjects for funding and federal support due to such campaigns as President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program, which bases the rating and therefore financial need of a school on its standardized test scores. Yet an important aspect of childhood development and preparation for their future has also been a part of traditional school curriculum. Physical Education is an essential part of the well-balanced class schedule for school children and is a needed part of overall education. The infamous Gym Class has received its share of both deserved and undeserved criticism and the rift between those who are enthusiastic about their physical education and those who despise the class is one of the defining social separations throughout the school years. However, a well-planned and implemented physical education program can be not only enjoyable but also life-improving for all students. For many children, physical education in school is the only positive source of encouragement they will have to help them become physically active and achieve healthy levels of exercise. "Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for developing coronary artery disease. It also increases the risk of stroke and such other major cardiovascular risk factors as obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL ("good") cholesterol and diabetes." (AHA 2004) With these kinds of risks associated with being physically inactive, it seems obvious that physical education should be implemented with as much regularity as learning the ABCs in school. Physical education activity has been proven to have "physical, psychologic, and social benefits and...inactive children are more likely to become inactive adults, and, subsequently be at a higher risk for obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke." (Sweeney 2001) There is statistical evidence proving that American children are not getting enough physical activity and that there are many potential dangers to the inactivity levels, such as obesity, and that both the benefits of healthy activity and the costs of inactivity that are developed during the school years will have a strong effect on the adult condition. The benefits of physical activity have led to many physician, government, and health organization recommendations for physical activity levels that can be successfully applied to physical education programs.
To demonstrate the need for intensive physical activity programs in schools, we will first examine just a few of the many relevant statistics that have been released by government organizations such as the Center for Disease Control, and professional publications such as the Journal of Pediatrics. Some reports have found that up to 40% of children between ages five and eight have health conditions that could significantly increase their changes of having heart disease early in life (Maier 2001). Heart-healthy habits are important for all children, and with such high levels of elevated risk factors for heart disease it is even more important to ensure that children are treating their hearts well. A frightening example of how unfit children are today is that some studies have shown that an average of 55% of children between the ages of six and 13 cannot do more than one pull-up because their muscles are not developed enough. (Maier 2001) Approximately half of all teenagers do not get enough physical activity to maintain the best health, and less than forty percent of teenagers engage in any sustained physical activity on a daily basis. This is a serious concern because "inactivity is linked to 17 chronic diseases and heart conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, certain cancers and osteoporosis. It doubles the chances of heart diseases." (Maier 2001) These diseases are not a laughing matter, and they have the potential to destroy a child's present and future life and lead to an early death. Every year in the United States alone, 400,000 deaths, or 17% of total deaths, are caused by factors lead to by physical inactivity and poor eating habits. These are preventable deaths that did not need to happen. "A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor across the spectrum of preventable diseases that lower the quality of life and kill Americans. Poor diet and physical inactivity (combined) are rapidly approaching tobacco (435,000 deaths) as the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S." (PCPFS 2004) The anti-tobacco initiative in schools is considered to be an important part of the agenda designed to protect children and educate them on healthy living habits. Likewise, physical activity needs to be a part of that agenda. It cannot be left to children to decide when or if they should be physically active or to decide what kind of physical activity to participate in on their own time, not can parents be trusted to teach these values to children. Once it was impossible to get through life without at least an hour of physical activity daily, whether that be through work or play, but today Western society is designed to allow people to be as lazy as possible. "Exercise is no longer a regular part of everyone's day - some children never walk or cycle to school, or play any kind of sport....40-69% of children over the age of six spend less than the recommended minimum of one hour a day doing moderate intensity physical activity." (BUPA 2004)
Some people may argue that physical activity choices should be left outside of the school curriculum and left up to the individual, and that schools need to focus on academic subjects that will lead to children becoming contributing parts of the country's economy.
Physical education may be an significant factor in reducing some drain on our economy, however, and this must not be overlooked. Inactivity can lead to type 2 diabetes among many other health problems. This example disease affected more than 30 million Americans in 2003, and with one million new cases every year and 200,000 deaths every year, this disease is not only a tragedy but also a financial burden. "The cost to the economy is $132 billion in direct and indirect medical costs." (PCPFS 2004) Of course, inactivity also leads very directly to weight problems, and more than 108 million people in America are overweight or obese, meaning that this condition affects about three fifths of all people in this country. Like type 2 diabetes, this problem can be looked at from an economic standpoint as well. "The cost of obesity (direct and indirect medical costs) is $117 billion per year." (PCPFS 2004) These costs can be significantly reduced through proper physical education in school.
The school years form the paths that children will take into adulthood. It is during this time that children must have the best possible role models and guidance to develop positive habits and healthy decision making skills. Children are best able to pick up on skills such as speaking languages or learning arithmetic at a young age, and likewise physical activity during these years will leave a lasting impression on the mind and body of the student. "Childhood and adolescence are pivotal times for preventing sedentary behavior among adults by maintaining the habit of physical activity throughout the school years." (PCPFS 2004) A child that learns to exercise and participate in healthy activities in school is more likely to keep doing these things as they grow older, continuing to reap the benefits of staying active. Likewise, the consequences of not learning these skills remains as people age. "Being overweight in adolescence was a more powerful predictor of these risks than was being overweight as an adult. It is believed that physical activity patterns developed in childhood and adolescence influence adulthood lifestyle habits." (AAFP 1994) Diseases that were once thought to exist almost exclusively in adults, such as type 2 diabetes (also known as "adult onset diabetes"), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and other chronic diseases, are increasingly being diagnosed in children and adolescents due to factors including inactivity, and inactive children will be found to show symptoms of such diseases much earlier in life and more often than those who keep physically fit. (AAFP 1994, PCPFS 2004) These health risks are linked directly to obesity, a leading result of inactivity, and "children who are overweight tend to grow up into adults who are overweight." (BUPA 2004) The importance again of addressing physical education in schools cannot be denied. "Young people are at particular risk for becoming sedentary as they grow older. Encouraging moderate and vigorous physical activity among youth is important. Because children spend most of their time in school, the type and amount of physical activity encouraged in schools are important." (PCPFS 2004)