Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Idaho schools can improve brains and bodies, too

Health gyms are filled with two types of fee-paying exercise fanatics—the fit, who learned early about the value of exercise, and the flabby, who've learned late that obesity can be a killer.

Physical fitness is no mere pastime to achieve chiseled good looks.

Obesity, the byproduct of inadequate exercise compounded by poor eating habits, has become a national health crisis.

Showing it has a responsible role to play in this, the Idaho Department of Education wants to require rigorous new physical education classes for students.

Students in first through sixth grades would be required to take 2.5 hours of physical ed; seventh and eighth graders, at least one physical ed class; and high schoolers would be required to take one class of "lifetime activities" to graduate.

True, classroom teachers are sagging under mandates to prepare young people for a world that increasingly demands more knowledge and skills. Yet, the statistics on the costs of obesity are alarming, as is the upward trend. And developing healthy bodies as well as brainy kids is nothing short of a national emergency.

In Idaho, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of obese adults nearly doubled in 10 years, from 11.7 percent in 1991 to 20 percent in 2001.

Nationally, 64.5 percent of Americans are classified as obese according to the American Obesity Association.

The World Bank estimates that treating obesity consumes 12 percent of the U.S. health care budget. Translated, the Obesity Association says the direct costs of obesity and excessive weight total $102 billion annually. Treating related diseases costs $331 billion per year.

And what a roster of diseases have been linked to excessive weight: arthritis, various forms of cancer, heart disease, end-stage renal disease, sleep apnea, stroke, and incontinence.

These diseases led to an estimated 300,000 deaths that might otherwise have been avoided through proper nutrition and daily exercise. That should jolt those who may pooh-pooh Idaho's proposed exercise programs for students as little more than playtime.

Improving student fitness, combined with sensible eating regimens at home, can sharply reduce unnecessary deaths, drastically cut health care costs, and improve academic performance as well.

In the end, healthier Americans mean a more productive nation and the ability to divert obesity treatment funds to other urgent needs—including spending more on schools.

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