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Kids’ Obesity:Back To School Basics

PE may be vanishing from primary and secondary school curricula, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get kids off the fat track.

Fatty, fatty, 2-by-4!” “Tub of lard!” “Wide load!” “Blubber!”

Overweight and obese children and teens suffer from mean-spirited taunts like these every day. Are such insults just a fact of growing up as “the fat kid,” or has a sedentary lifestyle set up more youngsters than ever to endure such heartless comments? Maybe the truth is a bit of both, but the latter of the two factors seems to be gaining serious ground as the leading culprit in this worldwide story. Kids were once free to play on the streets after school, but now it’s too dangerous. They once ate home-cooked meals; now they live on fast food and soda. They once participated in physical education (PE) every day; now they get much less—or no—activity in school.

While this scenario isn’t accurate for all kids, it rings true for many children and adolescents in different countries. Public health agencies, schools and concerned parents are sounding the alarm: Our kids are fat and something must be done. The problem is widespread and, without sustained intervention, will continue to grow.

The good news is that the negative momentum can be shifted if personal trainers join forces with schools and PE teachers. In the October 2002 issue of IDEA Personal Trainer, the article “Children + Fitness = Joy” looked at how to help overweight kids through private training and classes at facilities. (See that article for tips on what type of exercise to do with overweight kids, how best to interact with them and how to help parents help their kids. Also see the April 2003 issue of IDEA Health & Fitness Source for a comprehensive look at resistance training for kids.) This article, part two in IDEA Personal Trainer’s call for action to help overweight kids, examines how you can partner with schools through hands-on work and advocacy efforts.

Sobering Statistics

Dozens of statistics show that kids are getting fatter and less active and that these characteristics are reaping horrible consequences. Here are just a few sample statistics to show you how much of a problem children’s obesity is:

  • One in seven U.S. children and adolescents is obese. In
    one study obese children were found to be as depressed as
    those who have cancer. About 65 percent of kids in the
    study had obesity-related health problems, such as diabetes,
    sleep apnea or elevated cholesterol (Schwimmer, Burwinkle &
    Varni 2003).
  • In 1999, 13 percent of children ages 6 to 11 and 14 percent
    of adolescents ages 12 to 19 were overweight, up from 11
    percent for both age groups in 1994 (National Center for
    Health Statistics 2001).
  • Obesity-related annual hospital costs tripled over the
    20-year period from 1979 to 2000. During that time annual
    hospital costs for obesity-related conditions in children
    ages 6 to 17 increased from $35 million to $127 million (in
    2001 dollars) (U.S. Department of Health & Human
    Services 2002).
  • In a poll of U.S. adolescents from 13 to 18 years old, 75
    percent of those surveyed said that obese kids are less
    popular among their peers (Angelfire 2002).

PE: A Vanishing Subject?

Many people are surprised that kids are overweight and having all these problems. They assume that PE classes are a consistently administered, required part of the curriculum for kids of all ages. Wrong. The “Shape of the Nation Report,” conducted by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), notes:

  1. There is no federal law that requires
    that physical education be provided to
    students in the American education
    system, nor are there any incentives
    for offering physical education programs.
  2. States may set some general or mini-
    mum requirements, but individual
    school districts provide specific direction.
    A school district may exceed the mini-
    mum recommendations.
  3. Many states delegate responsibility for
    all content taught in schools to the
    local school districts.

Despite increasing childhood obesity and decreasing activity, and recommendations from the federal government and several national organizations, most states have taken no action to provide more PE.

So just how much PE are kids getting? Here’s what the “Shape of the Nation Report” shows:

  • At the elementary-school level, state-
    mandated requirements range from 30
    to 150 minutes per week. (NASPE
    recommends 150 minutes.)
  • At the middle-school level, require-
    ments range from 80 to 275 minutes
    per week. (NASPE recommends 225
  • At the high-school level, requirements
    range from no specific time to 225
    minutes per week. (NASPE recommends
    225 minutes.) However, most high-
    school students take physical education
    for only 1 year between ninth and
    12th grades.

Many parents aren’t happy with these figures. According to a recent survey from NASPE, 95 percent of parents think that daily physical activity helps children do better academically and that PE should be part of a school curriculum for all students in grades K through 12 (National Association for Sport and Physical Education 2003). In fact they’re right. Physically fit children do perform better. Higher fitness levels were associated with higher levels of achievement in fifth, seventh and ninth grades in a study conducted by the California Department of Education (National Association for Sport and Physical Education 2002).

The PE Challenge

Why is PE being given short shrift in schools? There are many reasons, according to Judith C. Young, PhD, executive director of NASPE in Reston, Virginia.

“Many schools have a 5- to 6-hour day,” she says. “Teachers have many things to cover, and demands for academic success are greater than ever.” Because schools are facing increasing pressure for students to excel at reading, writing and math, time that might be used for PE often goes to these staples.

To bring home the point that kids aren’t getting enough activity, Young cites the following facts: “Some elementary schools give students 30 minutes of PE once a week. If a school year has 30 weeks in it, that’s 15 hours total—and often less if you count holidays and times students are sick. That’s not enough time to provide a comprehensive understanding about physical education.”

What’s worse is that subjects such as health education and driver’s education often replace the time allowed for PE in high schools. In fact 58 percent of the states allow substitutions for high-school physical education, according to the “Shape of the Nation Report.” Substitutions may be made for medical or religious reasons, or to allow participation in varsity athletics, ROTC, marching band or other special activities.

Young believes that while noninstructional substitutions may provide some needed physical activity, they do not help students develop the broad understanding and skills that lead them to fully incorporate physical activity into their lives. “We don’t allow being in the school play or working on the yearbook or the school newspaper to substitute for English class,” she says.

Working With Schools

What’s clear is that participating in more physical activity at school would help kids lose weight—or prevent weight gain in the first place. Kids need to participate in up-to-date, effective physical activity
programs that challenge them at their individual levels. What’s less clear is exactly how personal trainers should get involved with schools. Certainly trainers need to respect the expertise of PE

“Trainers can contact local schools and work with physical educators,” says Jim Baugh, former CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods and founder of the advocacy group P.E.4Life. “You don’t want to steamroll them any more than you’d want people to come into clubs and bypass you.”

Bradley Gray, director of operations for PEAK PE out of Adrian, Michigan, agrees. “PE teachers are also frustrated about the way things are and the kids’ lack of results. There’s a huge opportunity for personal trainers and PE teachers to work together, but trainers need to be encouraging. If you say, ‘You’re doing it all wrong,’ that’s not going to work. You need to praise the teacher and find common ground so that kids get effective, functional fitness.”

One way to help is by providing PE teachers with additional fitness training. Young encourages trainers to talk to PE educators to let them know about services or organized programs trainers can provide to expand kids’ physical activity.

Some schools need more support because they don’t employ PE teachers. Instead, classroom teachers bear the burden of teaching PE. “It’s our responsibility to expose these teachers to different fitness options,” says Dan McDonogh, founder, president and director of marketing,
promotions and education for Fit4Play in Calgary, Alberta. “Teachers who aren’t PE specialists don’t know how to deliver programs on top of teaching English or social studies. They don’t have the time or money to get fitness certifications.”

In-School Programs

One way you can help schools is to supplement the PE kids are currently getting. Obviously, one-on-one services would be cost-prohibitive, but you can volunteer to teach a class or see if there are funds to pay you for a one-time or periodic class.

McDonogh’s Fit4Play specializes in bringing fitness programs to schools in the Calgary area. His trainers bring equipment to schools in a mobile trailer and offer a range of classes, including yoga, boxing and core stability programs. His trainers do 300 to 500 bookings per year. Kids are exposed to his programs from one to eight times a year, depending on the school and grade level. Trainers work with kids ages 5 to 17, changing the program to accommodate the age level.

McDonogh estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the kids he sees from ages 9 to 14 are overweight. “Our goal is to give kids a good experience so they continue down the road to good health,” he says. “Kids pay attention because there’s someone different teaching the class.” (For an example of McDonogh’s circuit training class used at schools, see page 57 of the April 2003 issue of IDEA Health & Fitness Source.)

After-School Programs

If in-school programs aren’t feasible, see if you can offer after-school fitness programs for interested children.

Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston, created and organized Project JUMP (Junior Urban Movement Program) at the Murphy Community School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. This 60-minute after-school program for kids ages 6 to 12 is taught by undergraduate PE and exercise science majors from UMass who volunteer their time.

The program—funded by a public service grant from UMass Boston and a grant from the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports—is free and is offered twice a week during each school semester. About 50 kids presently take advantage of the classes, which run from 3:30 to 4:30 and 4:30 to 5:30 pm. “This community-based intervention program is designed to improve kids’ attitudes toward activity and reduce the incidence of physical inactivity among youth living in our community,” Faigenbaum says.

JUMP involves several noncompetitive games that use props, such as medicine balls for strength training. Although the class is 60 minutes, kids are encouraged to take breaks as they need them. “There is no way an overweight kid can do 60 minutes at first. When kids take a break, a volunteer trainer talks to them about how they are feeling and motivates them,” Faigenbaum explains. “In 3 or 5 minutes they are ready to go again.” Kids gradually start taking fewer breaks. Faigenbaum says he gets excited when overweight children in the program work up to being able to exercise for 60 minutes solid.

Starting an after-school program may not be easy. Bonita Porte, owner of Energetic Juniors, a kids’ personal training business in New York City, wants to run fee-based, after-school fitness classes but is running into obstacles. “It’s challenging getting through to decision makers. In the school my own kids attended, the principal is gung-ho about starting classes,” Porte shares. “However, it’s taken months to get an appointment and this is with someone who’s interested! Public schools are going crazy with budget cuts and so much to do.”

In another school she did get approval to start a pilot class. Unfortunately, only two children signed up so the program was postponed. “I think we got limited enrollment because kids are used to taking [just] certain activities. We are offering something different. We need to get parents to understand that the kids would enjoy and benefit from the program. It’s going to take time. We’re going to offer the program again in September.”

Fee Vs. Free Services

You may be able to get paid for teaching in-school or after-school classes or consulting, but you will probably make less than you usually charge. With the financial constraints many schools have, you may get further if you can volunteer your services.

McDonogh’s company works with schools hundreds of times a year and the money is the biggest challenge. “The problem is that you can’t charge the schools too much or they can’t afford it. We do charge the school something to help cover the cost of instructors. We have sponsors who provide us with equipment, but we don’t have much money for marketing or expansion.”

Fit4Play uses practicum students from local colleges and universities who teach the classes to gain practical knowledge, hands-on learning and college credit. “We try to pay them $10 or $15 [Canadian] per class and cover their transportation costs. Practicum students are not available all the time, however, so we use other instructors, who get paid $45 [Canadian] per class.”

McDonogh loves his work but is frustrated that lack of money stands in the way of making a difference for more kids. “There’s a high demand for our work, but we are losing money. The government says that obesity is a problem. We can help but we need more money to make it work. We need corporate funding to reach more schools.”

Be Aware of
Advocacy Efforts

In addition to offering hands-on help, you can also support schools through advocacy work. The following advocacy programs target physical activity and healthy eating.

Physical Education. Through the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), the U.S. federal government allocates money to improve PE
programs. In 2001 it allocated $5 million for PEP Grants. In 2002 the figure increased to $50 million, and in 2003 to $60 million. Advocates are trying for $100 million for 2004.

“We’re trying to create some major momentum,” says P.E.4Life founder Baugh. “Money from PEP grants goes directly into schools to help with programs or equipment.” (For information on applying for PEP grants, see www.pe4life.org.)

Some state legislatures and community governments are also trying to make a difference. For example, the Texas legislature recently mandated more physical education for elementary-school students, and other states are considering similar bills (Tyre 2003).

Healthy Food. Elsewhere, advocates are trying to get healthier food into schools and less-healthy food out of them.

Some states and/or individual school districts are considering phasing out junk food in schools. Schools make money on these foods, but many administrators and teachers feel that, with obesity levels rising, the focus needs to be on kids’ health. For example, the sale of soda will be banned in all public schools in Los Angeles beginning in 2004. Edison Middle School in Los Angeles no longer sells unhealthy snack food in its vending machines. And this past February legislators in Maine introduced a series of bills that, if passed, would ban sales of soda and junk food in its schools (Center for Science in the Public Interest 2003).

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is also looking at reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, which includes federal school meal programs. At a hearing in March, panelists discussed funding needs, food service programs and the need for adequate nutrition education in schools in order to reduce obesity. Organizations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are pushing for changes such as more fruits and vegetables in school lunches and breakfasts.

Become a Community Advocate

How can you make a difference? The Center for Science in the Public Interest encourages you to:

  1. Write to Congress and the adminis-
    tration in support of nutrition and
    physical activity programs, funding
    and policies. An easy way to become
    an advocate is to go through the
    Advocacy Legislative Action Center at
    www.aahperd.org/advocacy. You can
    sign up for e-mail alerts and be notified
    when important legislation is pending.
    This list mobilizes concerned profes-
    sionals to contact legislators whenever
    bills related to health, physical activity,
    dance or sports are being considered
    by Congress. When there is legislation,
    you can click on the Web site and
    access a sample letter, which you may
    modify or send as is to your represen-
    tative or other decision makers. By
    inputting your zip code, you can
    prompt the Web site to automatically
    send the letter.
  2. Invite family and friends to write to
    their representatives.
  3. Mount health education campaigns in
    your community.
  4. Support state and local policies to
    promote healthy eating and activity.

P.E.4Life offers a community activation kit. “It talks about what letters to write to whom and gives you the steps you need to go through to developing a local network,” Baugh says.

It Takes a (Fitness) Village

So many children are overweight and so few of them get enough activity that turning the tide of obesity will be far from simple. Fitness professionals can’t do it alone. Nor can PE teachers, schools, parents or even the kids themselves. It clearly will take a village to enact meaningful change. Are you ready to be part of it?

PEAK PE: Reaching 54 Million Children

Gary Gray, PT, often called the father of functional fitness, and Bradley Gray, his son, don’t believe in aiming low. Their goal is for the Adrian, Michigan-based PEAK PE program to eventually provide quality physical education (PE) programs for 54 million American children.

The Birth of the Program. Participants in Gary Gray’s functional fitness seminars suggested he start his own program for kids. In spring 2002 he got serious about developing a program and enlisted his son Brad to help with the business development side.

The Program. PEAK PE stands for Promoting, Encouragement and Athleticism in Kids. According to Brad this program can be differentiated from others by the six distinct segments that can be applied to kids of any age and performed with any space/equipment parameters:

  • Part 1: It’s You Versus You. The program teaches that each child is his or her own greatest competitor. Kids are tested and retested against themselves only, not against each other or national standards.
  • Part 2: You Be You. Kids focus on their good points and get the opportunity to be as successful as possible.
  • Part 3: Encouragement. The kids encourage one another and celebrate everyone’s successes. They also partner up and coach each other.
  • Part 4: Empowerment. Participants are empowered by learning the basic principles about activity so they can train themselves as they get older. Different kids lead different parts of class, so there is a sense of ownership.
  • Part 5: Function. The program focuses on improving the way the body moves. Movements are three-dimensional, working the frontal, sagittal and transverse planes of motion.
  • Part 6: Fun. The program is fun. Kids smile and laugh a lot as they do the best they can for themselves.

Current Status. In July 2002 the elder Gray held the first PEAK PE training seminar. About 40 PE teachers from southeast Michigan were taught the principles. Then these teachers taught pilot classes at their schools. The program, modified based on the PE teachers’ experience, is currently run in 18 schools. Brad says several kids who walk into class disliking PE are asking to lead the class 6 weeks later.

The Future.The goal, according to Brad, is to create multimedia products, send more teachers through training and get PEAK PE in more schools. (The nonprofit arm of PEAK PE has received grants to continue developing the intellectual property.) One key to the program’s success is developing corporate support. To learn more see www.peakpe.com.

Components of a Quality PE Program

According to guidelines from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), a high-quality PE program includes these components:

Opportunity to Learn

  • instructional periods totaling 150 minutes (for elementary school) and 225 minutes (for middle and secondary school) per week
  • qualified physical education specialists providing a developmentally appropriate program
  • adequate equipment and facilities

Meaningful Content

  • instruction in a variety of motor skills designed to enhance the physical, mental and social/emotional development of every child
  • fitness education and assessment to help children understand, improve and/or maintain their physical well-being
  • development of cognitive concepts about motor skills and fitness
  • opportunities to improve emerging social and cooperative skills and gain a multi cultural perspective
  • promotion of regular amounts of appropriate physical activity throughout life

Appropriate Instruction

  • full inclusion of all students
  • maximum practice opportunities for class activities
  • well-designed lessons that facilitate student learning
  • out-of-school assignments that support learning and practice
  • no use of physical activity as punishment
  • regular assessment to monitor and reinforce student learning


Check out these resources to see how you can help schools’ PE programs and the pursuit of kids’ physical education in general.

Action for Healthy Kids, www.actionforhealthykids.org. A group dedicated to promoting better nutrition and physical activity in schools. Operating through volunteers who are leaders in health, education, local government and business, as well as concerned parents and students, each state team tailors solutions specific to the needs of its local school districts. More than half of the teams have already begun implementing changes.

American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), www.aahperd.org. Dedicated to strengthening basic knowledge about sport and PE among professionals and the general public. AAHPERD is composed of six organizations, including the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).

American Heart Association, www.americanheart.org. Sponsors the HeartPower program, which provides materials for teaching pre-K through eighth-grade children about nutrition and physical activity.

Canadian Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (CAHPERD), www.cahperd.ca. Offers resources for promoting PE, including Making the Case for Physical Education in Canada: A Presentation Package for Leaders, and The Active Living School: Build It and They Will Come.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Media Campaign, www.verbnow.com/ or www.bam.gov. Sponsors the VERB campaign, which motivates kids 9 to 13 to get active and live a healthy lifestyle. The CDC also developed Promoting Physical Activity: A Guide for Community Action, available through Human Kinetics Publishers, www.humankinetics.com.

Fit4Play, www.fit4play.com. Provides access to cutting-edge fitness programming for children in the Calgary, Alberta, school system.

Healthy School Lunch Campaign, www.healthyschoollunches.org. Developed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Provides extensive resources for parents, educators and others interested in improving school lunches.

National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA), www.cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/nana.html. Promotes a better understanding of the importance of healthy eating, physical activity and obesity control to the nation’s health and health care costs. NANA is made up of more than 250 organizations, including IDEA.

National School Fitness Foundation, www.fitnessfoundation.org. Seeks to improve the overall level of health, wellness and fitness in the United States, particularly among youth in grades K through 12. Schools that qualify receive free fitness equipment.

P.E.4Life, www.pe4life.org. A nonprofit advocacy organization that serves as the collective voice for promoting quality, daily physical education programs for America’s youth. Makes available the “P.E.4LIFE Community Action Kit,” a video/CD-ROM package of ready-to-use information that makes the case for quality physical education.

President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, www.fitness.gov. Offers publications that focus on children’s fitness and runs several motivational kids’ fitness programs, including the Presidential Sports Award (a Family Fitness Award is also available) and the new Presidential Active Lifestyle Award, which gives kids presidential recognition for 60 minutes of activity 5 days a week for 6 weeks.

Project Fit America (PFA), www.projectfitamerica.org. A nonprofit organization dedicated to getting kids fit. PFA donates money to schools to create cardiovascular health and lifetime fitness education programs.

SPARK, www.sparkpe.org. Creates, implements and evaluates programs that promote lifelong wellness. SPARK programs are based on recommendations of curriculum experts, professional organizations, national and state guidelines and frameworks, and Healthy People 2010 goals. The well-researched programs have been field-tested and proven to work by both classroom teachers and PE specialists.


Angelfire 2002. Online poll: Teens say obesity bigger problem than bulimia and anorexia. Press release, October 9. www.angelfire.lycos.com; retrieved October 10.
Center for Science in the Public Interest. 2003. Maine legislation tackles obesity. www.cspinet.org/new; retrieved April 25.
National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE). 2002. New study supports physically fit kids perform better academically. www.aahperd.org/naspe/template.cfm?template=pr_121002.html; retrieved April 30.
National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 2003. Parents believe physical activity key to preventing childhood obesity. www.aahperd.org/naspe/template.cfm?template=pr_042903.html; retrieved April 30.
National Center for Health Statistics. 2001. More American children and teens are overweight. www.cdc.gov/nchs/releases/01news/overwght99.htm; retrieved April 25.
Schwimmer, J.B., Burwinkle, T.M., & Varni, J.W. 2003. Health-related quality of life of severely obese children and adolescents. Journal of the American Medical Association 289 (14), 1813-9. Tyre, Peg. 2003. Getting physical. Newsweek, February 3, 46-7.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). 2002. HHS urges community partnerships to improve physical activity: CDC study finds medical costs among obese young people increase significantly. Press release, May 1. www.hhs.gov/news/press/2002pres/physactive.html; retrieved April 26.


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