schools.jpgGetting good grades may be influenced by more than just focusing on academics, as several reports have noted that physical education programs in schools can boost academic performance.

Physical activity has also been linked to improved self-confidence, self-esteem and memory performance. However, in San Francisco, a study released Thursday by Shape Up San Francisco found that the city’s elementary school students are not getting enough physical activity.

The state mandates that elementary school students should partake in 200 minutes of physical education classes every two weeks, or an average of 20 minutes a day.

To undertake the study, Shape Up San Francisco, which is staffed by the city’s Department of Health, partnered with the San Francisco Unified School District and the University of California at San Francisco.

The study evaluated 28 schools across the school district, including 20 randomly selected elementary schools, half of which have a district-hired physical education specialist.

Of those, only four elementary schools, or 20 percent, met the state mandate.

On average, elementary school students were scheduled to have 150 minutes of physical education every two weeks, or 75 percent of the mandated amount, according to the study. They received even less, however — 114 minutes–because classes did not always meet as scheduled.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a well-designed PE program is one in which students are engaged in moderate-to-vigorous exercise at least 50 percent of the time.

It is the kind of exercise “that gets your heart beating faster, that gets you sweaty,” study director Hannah Thompson, also a child health researcher at UCSF, said this afternoon when the study was released at the Chinese Immersion School in the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

But it’s not just about getting sweaty, it’s about learning skills that can help children later in life to be healthy adults who regularly exercise, according to Stella Laura, the school’s PE teacher.

Lau demonstrated how PE helps students to learn “basic fundamental skills” as she led 17 first-grade students in exercises focusing on learning how to dribble.

Such skills, Thompson said, are “critically necessary to be physically active” as adults.

“If the kid doesn’t know how to dribble the ball, they’re not going to be very likely to join the basketball team in middle school or play it on the playground as an adult with friends,” Thompson said.

The UCSF study found that the participating schools nearly met or exceeded that national recommendation, with students spending 46 percent of class time in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, although the level of activity “differed significantly by gender.”

School administrators are working to get elementary students moving–and learning how to move–by hiring four new PE specialists, a move supported by teachers and principals surveyed at the participating schools.

According to Thompson, students led in physical activity by PE specialists spent more time at elevated heart rates than students led by non-specialists.

“It’s critically important that kids have access to PE teachers who can teach proper skill development,” Thompson said.

“We need to shift priorities to consider all aspects of the students’ academic and social development.”

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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