Skip to content

Think Tank

How To Get California Kids Physically Fit

Last year, about one third of California’s fifth, seventh and ninth graders passed all six sections of the annual state physical fitness test, according to a state Department of Education report released last month.

California’s annual measurements of aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extension strength, upper body strength and flexibility showed slight improvement over the previous year. The state considers meeting minimum requirements in five of the six categories to be a passing grade.

Students’ fitness levels appear to improve with age, but not much. About 48% of fifth graders, 55% of seventh graders and 59% of ninth graders passed five of the six sections.

Overall, only about half the state’s school kids earned passing marks in physical fitness.

We asked legislators and stakeholders what state policymakers should do to increase California youngsters’ physical fitness.

We got responses from:

Combined Effort Needed

The simple fact is healthy students learn better. While I’m pleased to see the slow shift toward better health continues, we are nowhere near the end of this effort. With only about a third of our students being physically fit as measured by the state’s Physical Fitness Test, it’s more important now than ever to teach young people that they need to be more physically active, eat fresh and healthy food, and drink plenty of clean water.

The evidence is clear: there is a link between student health and academic success.  We know that children with poor general health are less likely to be successful in school. Chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, and tooth decay that used to be adult diseases, are now affecting 20 to 30 percent of students in California. This in turn leads to greater absenteeism and lower school performance. Also, students with high levels of stress or depression do poorly in school. This is unacceptable.

California already has laws on the books to require students to participate in a minimum amount of physical education. But no one can legislate fitness. This has to be a combination of efforts at our schools, at home, and personal commitment. As a teacher, track coach, legislator, and how State Superintendent, I have enjoyed a lifelong commitment to health and well-being. That’s why I created the Team California for Healthy Kids initiative to promote healthy eating and physical activity throughout the day, in school, at home, and in the community.

Now I ask everyone to take the pledge, to help their children lead healthier lives. There are plenty of simple ways to do this. For example, let your children walk or bike to school. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Put away the smartphones and TV and play outside. When we lead by example, and teach our children these good habits, they will learn vital skills that will last them a long and healthy lifetime. 

State Leaders Should Encourage, Support Districts

This year, almost 65% of California’s students failed to perform within the “Healthy Fitness Zone” on the California Physical Fitness Test.  State policymakers should do more to encourage school districts to focus on the needs of the whole child and particularly on physical wellness as an important part of child development and success in school.

Students who are healthy and physically fit do better academically. In addition, research shows that high quality physical education contributes to improved fitness levels and increases the ability of students to make informed choices and understand the value of leading a physically active lifestyle. Physically active students are more likely to be academically motivated, alert and successful. Physical activity also promotes a positive self-concept among adolescents.

Understanding the importance of physical health and fitness in school achievement, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson launched “Team California for Healthy Kids” with the goal of increasing fitness programs in our schools, as well as increasing student access to healthy food and clean water. Team California for Healthy Kids is an important resource for districts in their efforts to improve the physical fitness of our public school students.

We should also consider the work of Jill Vialet, who created Playworks, a not-for-profit organization based in Oakland that provides trained coaches to work with elementary school children at recess and before and after school. Playworks is based on the premise that students who have a great experience on the playground will have a great experience in the classroom. The activities facilitated by Playworks coaches not only get kids moving but also help them develop social skills and learn to solve problems collaboratively. Research conducted by Stanford University has confirmed Vialet’s hypothesis: students who participate in Playworks behave better, are more focused in the classroom and are less likely to be bullied. 

In Sacramento, state-level policymakers — myself included — should do all we can to encourage local districts to implement programs like Playworks in our schools. As we enter a new phase in public education of greater local control over how education dollars are spent, school districts will have more freedom than ever to develop and provide programs for students that center on physical activity and healthy habits. Our role is to encourage and support school districts in their efforts to help all California students become healthy and physically fit.

Increasing Activity, Fitness Worth the Effort

Both the public health and education communities have a stake in the physical fitness of California’s youth, and in physical activity, which is the major way to improve fitness. The physical and mental health benefits of physical activity are well known, supporting the 60-minute per day guidelines. The academic benefits are less well known but should be of great interest to educators. Dozens of studies document that physically fit and active youth do better in school, whether measured by grades or standardized tests. Exciting new research is showing why — physical activity builds healthy brains. On brain scans you can see the brains of active children are turned on and ready to learn.

The poor-to-mediocre performance on fitness tests indicates there is much to be gained in health and education by helping California’s youth be more active every day. However, education policies emphasizing high-stakes testing have pushed physical education and recess out of many schools. New research on physical activity and the brain should be leading educators to consider physical activity as a practical approach for improving academic performance.

Health and education problems cluster together. Schools with many low-income youth who are struggling academically also tend to have more obese and less-fit students. Low-resource schools have fewer PE specialists, fewer PE classes and less recess. These same students are likely to be further disadvantaged by fewer opportunities for physical activity outside of school. Thus, it would be wise for administrators of low-resource schools to spend some of the funds from the new state education funding formula on physical activity programs.

The good news is that several effective school programs were identified in a recent report from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Effective practices like highly-active PE, classroom activity breaks, and walking and biking to school sound familiar because they used to be common in our schools. There are also ways to make recess and after-school programs more active. A new report estimates how much activity can be generated by each strategy. Though there is no single approach to ensuring California kids get enough activity in school, active PE is the cornerstone because PE can reach all students. A study conducted in California and Washington state found many schools are implementing practices that get kids active. In schools with multiple effective practices, students were twice as active as those with zero or one practice.

Promoting physical activity and fitness in schools is a great opportunity for public health and education professionals to work together. We know what the solutions are and implementing them will benefit kids educationally and academically.

Strengthening Minds -- and Bodies --Through STEM Education

Strong minds start with strong bodies and one out of three California fifth, seventh, and ninth graders is doing well in this area based on results from the latest annual statewide Physical Fitness Test results. Enhanced STEM education would help the remaining two-thirds.

It’s well known that science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — education is increasingly critical to the state, which will have nearly 1.2 million STEM-related jobs to fill within the next five years.

A growing body of research also supports STEM education as a way to improve students’ health. Healthy adults typically formed good habits as children. Those habits start with understanding how the body works — and how to help it work better.

Innovators are using STEM education as an interdisciplinary approach to help students translate classroom learning into hands-on strategies for alleviating societal challenges including health-related issues such as childhood obesity.

Researchers at Purdue University, for example, have just been given the green light to expand a pilot program, Teaching Engineering Concepts to Harness Future Innovators and Technologists, or TECHFIT, that helps students apply their STEM knowledge toward technology-based fitness games called exergames, inspired by popular interactive games such as Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution.

Professors at Clemson University’s College of Health, Education, and Human Development have also designed subject-by-subject STEM lesson plans that reinforce core academic concepts with physical activities in the classroom. For example, students learning about the solar system divide into pairs, select question cards about the planets, and foot dribble a ball to the correct planet station until the class has visited all the planets. Activities such as this one help reinforce healthy mind/body habits in students.

Nearly 500 students from four North Carolina school systems recently participated in the BioMoto program sponsored by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Through BioMoto, students applied lessons from core STEM subjects to improve their physical fitness through biotechnology and motor sports.

Not only did students gain valuable knowledge and skills related to their potential future careers, their overall health improved, including greater muscular strength, reduced body fat and aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

As many opportunities as there are to improve California students’ physical fitness outside the classroom, we must not overlook in-classroom opportunities to link fitness with STEM education, which can help students excel in both mind and body throughout their lives.