Junkfood Science: Take home message from school: Kids, spend as little time reading as possible

June 20, 2007

Take home message from school: Kids, spend as little time reading as possible

Last month, we looked at proposed legislation in Texas to whip school children into shape. A press release issued by Cooper Aerobics Center, which sells the Fitnessgram and drafted the language in the proposed bill, said that the Governor had signed the bill into law:

The new law now defines the level of daily activity — moderate to vigorous — Kindergarten through fifth graders are required to exert for 30 minutes during PE or structured recess, which students will begin this fall. Starting the next school year of fall 2008, sixth through eighth graders will be added and must participate in moderate to vigorous activity four out of six school semesters either 30 minutes daily, 125 minutes during a school week or 225 minutes over two school weeks.

“This legislation is critically needed to improve the health of our student population, far too many of whom are overweight and at risk of chronic diseases. We have a responsibility to ensure basic health and exercise for our young people so that they can live long, healthy lives," said Senator Jane Nelson, District 12. As part of the bill, more than four million third through 12th grade students in 8,000 public and private schools will undergo yearly tests. The test will measure physical performance and its affect on student academic achievement levels, attendance levels, obesity, disciplinary problems and meal programs, specifically if students eat breakfast at home or what they bring for lunch verses eating at the school cafeteria.

According to the Austin American Statesman, the “new physical education law [is] based on studies showing physically fit students perform better on tests:”

Jocks tend to be better students than couch potatoes. That's the premise behind legislation [making] physical education classes mandatory for Texas middle school students and.. require school districts to track and report student fitness levels....

“Texas is at the forefront of addressing the issue of childhood obesity," said Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, one of the bill's authors...“Anyone who has taught public school knows the old adage of 'sound body, sound mind' really is true," Nelson said. “This generation of young people will live shorter lives than their parents unless we change the status quo. We've got to do this."

Texas Education Agency officials say they plan to use a program called Fitnessgram...for the physical assessments.

Was this legislation based upon a solid body of evidence demonstrating benefits and effectiveness and a careful risk analysis to ensure benefits outweigh potential harm? Incredibly, Nelson told the Statesman that the study purporting to show that physically fit elementary students did better on academic tests “which helped push her bill through the Texas Senate” hadn’t even been published! So, the public and healthcare professionals never even had a chance to review it.

According to the University of Illinois, where Nelson said the study was done, “anecdotal evidence [for a link between exercise and academic performance] is plentiful, but empirical data to back up those assumptions have been harder to come by.” These researchers report that they’ve been comparing Fitnessgram results on Illinois schoolchildren with the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests and measuring neuroelectric and behavioral responses to stimulus discrimination tasks. Their “preliminary results indicate a correlation,” but researcher, Charles Hillman, professor of kinesiology, “stressed the preliminary nature of their findings” and said: “There’s a lot of basic research that needs to go on before we can determine what underlies achievement.”

Such cautious wording is prudent because those who’ve researched the associations between athletics and academic performance know that even the most intuitively correct findings aren’t a slam dunk — benefits seen are neither universal, nor is the causality clearly due to the activity.

In the vast majority of studies reporting a benefit from fitness, “athletes disproportionately hail from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds,” found researchers in a recent study, “Untangling the Links among Athletic Involvement, Gender, Race, and Adolescent Academic Outcomes,” published in the Sociology of Sport Journal. Led by Kathleen E. Miller at the University of Buffalo, they added: “Moreover, students with better grades tend to self-select into high school sports programs.”

Oftentimes in studies of children, participation in sports is combined with all extracurricular activities (including arts and cultural programs) to show an academic or social benefit from physical activity or fitness. Again, such participation reflects socioeconomic status and can accompany differences in educational opportunities or academic support, rather than special attributes to sports, themselves.

Nor do the relationships between athletic involvement and academic outcomes equally cross racial and gender lines. “[A]thletic participation was consistently associated with socialization for educational achievement only for white male adolescents; the link [i]s weaker for white females and black males, and weakest of all for black females,” said Miller and colleagues. While research links high school sports participation and positive academic outcomes, their study found that such correlations may not be as robust as believed. “In fact, its strength and direction appear to be contingent upon the gender and race of the adolescent, the dimension of athletic involvement under consideration, and the time span over which predictor and outcome are measured.”

Examining teens who reported they were “jocks,” they found that two years later these teens had more school misconduct and lower grades than their nonjock peers. At the high school level, athletics is linked to better grades, less absenteeism and few discipline problems in some studies, but “the body of findings has been plagued by small effect sizes and...inconsistencies.” They cited a number of examples showing the opposite effect among blacks or inner city adolescents. “Studies that take into account background characteristics tend to find weaker correlations between sports participation and GPA.. There is also considerable uncertainty regarding the shelf life of athletic effects....[benefits] dissipate or even turn negative if predictor and outcome variables are measured several years apart.”

The issue of race and gender also significantly moderate the links between athletic participation and academics. Some studies, for example, find some positive effects for white female and black male athletes, but the opposite for those who identified themselves as jocks, and find no benefit among black females or hispanics in athletics. “In light of our results, it may be that the short-term athletic benefits identified by developmental researchers derive more from the immediate context of participation (e.g., team rules about absences or minimum GPA requirements) than from longer-term developmental processes.” They concluded:

The issues raised are of particular importance today, as more school districts and communities face fiscally-imposed decisions about which extracurricular activities and programs to cut. Previous research has suggested that school-sponsored athletic programs may help promote favorable academic outcomes. Our findings constitute a warning sign that such programs are no panacea, particularly when they promote a “jock” ethos, and must be considered time-sensitive as well.

Worse, it appears that the legislators never even thought to consider the harm of young people getting a report from school on how their bodies measure up and giving them exercise prescriptions. For that, there is considerable evidence against labeling growing children according to their BMI, as if only one size can be normal and healthy, instilling fears of fat and concerns about the need to lose weight, or that intensive structured exercise is what’s most beneficial for them. As we’ve covered these extensively here, rather than repeat it all, it might be most enlightening and helpful for readers to read what the reality was like for a young girl and her parents upon receiving her Fitnessgram report and to read how growing numbers of parents are responding.

Harriet Brown has written a fabulous piece in which she described the reaction at her house when getting her 11-year old’s report:

In blue letters it read FITNESSGRAM....Then there was another little box labeled “Body Mass Index," showing her past and current BMIs plotted against a bar graph. Her scores were in the green “healthy fitness zone." To the right was a large red area—danger! fatsos coming!—labeled “Needs improvement." That's where your bar graph ends up if your BMI is “too high." To the left was a tiny red box labeled “very low," which is, I suppose, where your bar graph ends up if you're anorexic.

I guess this is supposed to be a cute, non-threatening way of communicating with parents, a kind of casual, unofficial, “Say, did you know your kid's in great shape?" or “Hey, by the way, your kid's kinda fat!"

This is insulting on any number of levels, of course, but let's just pick one: the suggestion that it's better to be too skinny than too fat, which as we know is not supported by any actual science.** Why isn't the “too skinny" area labeled something like “needs medical attention now!"? ...

My daughter was more upset about the fake activity pyramid on the back of the fitnessgram, modeled after that most famous of irrelevancies, the USDA food pyramid. At the bottom, the widest section was labeled “lifestyle activity" .... The next level held two smaller squares labeled aerobic activity and aerobic sports. One level up, another two squares were labeled muscular activity and flexibility activity. The smallest section, the point of the pyramid, was labeled “rest," and it included schoolwork, homework, reading, computer games, TV, videos, eating, resting, and sleeping. Clearly these are the things you're supposed to do as little of as possible. My daughter was outraged. “I wonder what the teachers would think about this!" she cried. “You're not supposed to read?"

Mrs. Brown said she felt like we’re living in a Kurt Vonnegut story and that “the whole fitness pyramid thing is like an anorexic's way of seeing the world—only in terms of what burns the most calories.”

Her entire article and the responses of other parents are well worth reading in case you’re tempted to believe this legislation is all good...all knowing what’s best for our children, their health, wellbeing, and intellectual development...and that it’s based on the most rigorous science.

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