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Signature Assignment: Group Teacher Advocacy Project

Ryan Foster, Carlee Hakes, Jared Gaskin, Kaitlin Fincher, Jasmine Fernandez

Arizona State University

Declining Physical Activity and Childhood Obesity

Introduction to the Problem and Identification in the Field

Physical activity’s overall presence is noticeably limited throughout Arizona schools, and

our team of educators argue that it is for this reason that today’s students are struggling with

problems like obesity and lackluster school performance. Over the course of our respective field

experiences, the five of us have noticed a plethora of negative effects on students and staff alike

stemming from limited physical activity opportunities and/or childhood obesity.

At Whitman Elementary and Holmes Elementary in Mesa, for example, physical

education class, once an essential component to the average student’s school day, now takes

place only twice a week for a mere half hour. To add to this grievance, students only get two

insufficient 15-minute recesses throughout the day. These numbers fall far below the nationally

recommended averages, so it is no wonder why students and staff regularly express their lack of

contentment. Students’ growth and development are not being given the necessary consideration;

Following the same downward trend as the two schools mentioned previously, Palo

Verde Elementary’s physical education program is also suffering. Three years ago, Palo Verde

offered students physical education three times a week compared to students now only attending

physical education once a week. Moreover, an insufficient amount of recess time is being

offered. A large number of staff members have reported an increase in negative student

behaviors over the past several years, which may be due to the decrease in activity time students

are offered throughout the school week. However, teachers are being negatively affected by this

decrease in activity time, as well. Students’ physical activity breaks throughout the day once

gave them time to prep for classes and de-stress, but now they are perpetually busy and have

little opportunity to move around themselves. When teachers are stressed and/or unhappy, they
cannot deliver passionate lessons and are perhaps more unlikely to act caring and patient toward

students. This shift, in turn, can cause students to disengage, thus leading to tension, lethargy,

and such to manifest.

Meanwhile, at Gilbert Classical Academy (GCA), the honors school’s unwavering

dedication to classical education formats and advanced scholastic achievement leaves little time

in the day for students and staff to move around and de-stress. Unlike other schools in the Gilbert

Public School District, GCA must cover seven classes a day unlike the standard five or six. This

crammed set-up means that there is absolutely no time in the day for physical (or mental) breaks.

From the beginning of the school day to the very end, students are in class listening to lectures,

flipping through their textbooks, or writing in their notebooks as instructed by their teachers,

who are similarly confined to their seats or podiums all day given their school-imposed lecturer

roles. Neither party benefits from this inhospitable environment. Students are only permitted to

get out of their seats during class if they have to go to the bathroom or if their IEP/504 calls for a

need for movement, and their pent-up energy often exhibits in the form of behavioral outbursts,

stress eating, torpor, etc. Similarly, teachers are dissatisfied by how the rigid culture of the

school practically forces them to be sedentary for long periods of time.

At another school, Crismon Elementary in Mesa, physical education teachers are noticing

how more and more students are becoming unable to perform simple physical movements that

only 15 years ago were easy for children to perform. Common exercises, such as jumping rope,

are becoming increasingly difficult for many students nowadays because they are not committed

to regular physical activity in and out of school. Regardless of the setting, students’ sedentary

behaviors are very much apparent while their movement patterns and physical fitness levels

leave much to be desired. This stagnancy and lack of self-care concerns educators across all
fields because childhood obesity as well as a series of other related physical/emotional issues are

on an upward trend.

Despite physical education’s required slot in secondary schools— students typically have

to enroll in a physical education class for at least one of the four years they are in school— the

breakdown of physical education classes at Higley High in Gilbert shows that even when such

classes are present in the curriculum, the amount of time in which students are actually being

physically productive in them is appallingly low. At a glance, about 50 minutes of physical

education daily may appear promising, but upon deeper examination, it was observed that about

20-30 minutes of this 50-minute period was utilized in an extremely underwhelming manner;

that is, this large time frame was dedicated solely to giving students’ time to dress out and get to

wherever location they needed to get to, be it to the workout spot or to another class. If time for

physical activity is not treated seriously or not enforced effectively, then students will take

physical activity for granted and lose sight of its significance.

Research Background

The current rise of childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyle patterns is due to a series of

changing environmental factors. The influence of the school setting is particularly important to

consider when evaluating this trend. “Children spend a majority of their waking day at school,

hence, it is during this window of opportunity that physical activity could be influenced the

most” (Hills, King, & Armstrong, 2007, p. 538). Facilitating an active lifestyle in students is an

important responsibility for schools. However, most schools in the United States are not up to

standard; Wang, Papaioannou, Sarrazin, Jaakkola, and Solmon (2006) outline in their report


The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that
elementary schools offer 150 minutes of instruction per week and that secondary schools

provide 220 minutes each week to older students (Corbin & Pangrazi, 1998). Estimates

are, however, that only seven to 8 percent of schools currently meet those standards

(Cook, 2005).

Following the example of many schools across the nation, various Arizona schools have

decreased physical education as well as opportunities for physical activity over the years in favor

of shifting attention to academic rigor, allocating funding elsewhere, and the like. Such a practice

has adverse effects on students’ health and wellness, which in turn has adverse effects on their

academic performance and personal habits.

A recent report on the state’s lack of clear guidelines/regulations for physical education

sheds more light on the issue of declining physical activity in schools. The Arizona K12 Center

(2017) claims that so many students are missing out on the “benefits of a robust physical

education program” because Arizona does not designate how much physical education should be

implemented in schools, assess the availability of appropriate equipment and adequate facilities,

require schools to provide their local school wellness policy to the state education agency, or

monitor the implementation of local school wellness policies. When schools are not held

accountable for formally educating their students on the need for physical fitness or healthy

routines, it is unsurprising that they do not deliver.

Recess is also at risk in today’s schools. Ramstetter and Murray (2017) describe how the

process of diminishing recess has been going on since the 1990s, facing further decline due to

the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001; although the rising rates of childhood

obesity have become a major concern to countless American organizations and driven them to

come up with more health and wellness-related initiatives in recent years, implementation is
ultimately under local jurisdiction, and thus educators can only hope that schools choose to

honor the policies pushing for more recess, physical activity, and general well-roundedness

during school days (p. 20). Based on our team members’ respective experiences in the field,

however, it seems that Arizona schools are still caught up in the idea that minimizing recess will

strengthen students’ academics, when in fact doing so merely minimizes physical activity

opportunities, benefits to their cognitive functioning, time for social interaction, etc.

It is rather ironic how America’s schools cut time for physical education and physical

activity short despite the fact that there is no clear evidence out there indicating that these cuts

bolster student performance in anyway. Interestingly, there is evidence out there showing the

opposite. A 2006 study conducted with 214 elementary school students in Michigan, for

example, found that increased physical activity levels correlated with improved academic

performance (Coe, Pivarnik, Womack, Reeves, & Malina, 2006). The results of another study,

conducted in 2012 with 36 pre-adolescent children in Illinois, supports this finding, with

researchers concluding that physical activity does not detract from children’s learning, but rather

offers “an increased opportunity to engage in health behaviors” (Drollette, Shishido, Pontifex, &

Hillman, 2012, p. 2022).

There are a number of American studies out there with similar results to those stated

above worth discussing, but our team would like to briefly point out how differently physical

activity in schools outside of the United States is viewed and implemented in schools. To

illustrate, students in China are at recess for approximately 40% of their school day, yet they are

regular recipients of top academic honors (Chang & Coward, 2015). Wang et. al (2006)

elaborates on more countries’ approaches to fostering academic excellence and physical fitness;

they go into detail about how Singapore holds high expectations for physical education (i.e.
requiring students to learn gymnastics, swimming, dance, track and field, etc.), how Greece and

France demand proficiency from more than one sport from all students, and how Finland teaches

its students to engage in sports as a natural form of self-expression. It is often pointed out how

the United States lags behind other countries in terms of education ranking. There is reason to

believe that the country’s lack of emphasis on physical activity may be factoring into students’

low performances.


During a regular school day, students usually have five opportunities to be physically

active: physical education classes, recess, active transport before and after school, afterschool

activities, and in-class activity breaks (Slater, Nicholson, Criqui, Turner, & Chaloupka, 2012, as

cited in Cooper et al., 2016, p. 133). Winter (2009) suggests five strategies to combat the related

issues of decreasing physical activity in schools and childhood obesity; these strategies include

staying informed about the scope of the problem, designing a school action plan to support health

and wellness, promoting positive psychosocial development of children, promoting healthy diet

and nutrition, and encouraging physical activity (pp. 283-287).

Staying informed. It is important for schools to know the scope of childhood obesity in

their community so education personnel and policymakers can make informed decisions,

improve policies, and implement more effective programs to benefit students and their families.

Teachers can mobilize student success programs and obesity prevention initiatives by staying

informed of local youth health data, reading professional journals, and checking credible

websites on a regular basis.

Designing a school action plan. Schools function as hubs that possess a potentially

massive influence over the health and wellness of young students. Educators can take action to
prevent obesity, support student performance, and garner community involvement in a number of

ways. For example, physical education teachers, content area teachers, nurses, counselors, and

more can team up to deliver curricula and programs designed to improve students’ health-related

knowledge and behaviors. Involving stakeholders in the community, such as parents, grassroots

programs, health agencies, and child care providers, also makes for a meaningful collaboration,

as these groups can offer more insight into positive, fun, and culturally sensitive approaches to

teaching children and getting them active.

Promoting positive psychosocial development of children. Numerous studies have

shown that overweight children have lower self-esteem, less athletic competence, more negative

feelings concerning appearance/body image, a higher risk for psychological and psychosocial

problems, and so on. With such stressors affecting their self-image and behavior, it is

unsurprising that these students’ academic achievement suffers. Educators can work against such

declines by interacting with students authoritatively and providing good modeling and social

learning opportunities.

Authoritative interaction. “Authoritative interaction helps children develop self-

regulation and thereby builds their competence and self-esteem” (Winter, 2009, p. 285). Rather

than forcing children to stuff themselves or turning a blind eye toward their perhaps unsavory

eating habits, authoritative teachers facilitate good eating patterns, using methods like

encouragement and offers of more time for play, physical activity, etc. to educate students.

Providing good modeling and social learning opportunities. Social Cognitive Theory

(SCT) dictates that children acquire much of their knowledge through the observation and

modeling of others’ behaviors. With this idea in mind, school personnel can serve as great

models to students by making it a routine to eat healthily and be physically active themselves.
School settings are naturally ideal environments for social learning, where everyone can learn

benefit through participation and social interaction. Educators can greatly motivate students to

engage in healthy practices if they demonstrate how to eat nutritiously, play and exercise

enthusiastically, and self-regulate alongside them.

Promoting healthy diet and nutrition. There is an undeniable link between diet quality

and school performance. Students with poor diets are not getting the energy they need to focus

and function properly, which often leads to them doing poorly in school. Schools and parents can

work together to fight this dilemma by teaching children about nutrition and good dietary choices

in addition to enforcing reasonable limits on technology use and more physical activity. If

parents are unable to secure proper food or lack the means of providing health education for

themselves and their children, then school personnel should assist them in procuring necessary


Encouraging physical activity. One way teachers and schools can increase physical

activity is by simply scheduling more time for it during the school day. Outside of physical

education class and recess, students should have educational activities that are structured to

foster many opportunities for play and motion. After all, student engagement rises when students

are given more hands-on, authentic tasks as well as chances to interact with their environment.

Another way to encourage physical activity is to suggest to students alternative transportation

methods for coming/going to school (e.g. walking instead of driving, biking instead of taking the

bus) along with extracurricular activities/programs they may enjoy in and out of school (e.g.

sports clubs, recreation centers, etc.). When educators show genuine investment in students’

well-beings, in their lives beyond their school performance, students are more likely to take these

suggestions to heart and care for themselves more attentively.

The five strategies outlined above provide but a general overview of how schools and

their other potential community partners can increase physical activity and/or decrease childhood

obesity rates. Next, our team will shift focus and discuss how physical education teachers can

assert their own importance and the importance of physical education itself to the school

community by serving not only as coaches and mentors, but as reinforcers of core subject area

content, as well. Current research conducted by Scrabis-Fletcher (2016) offers diverse examples

of how physical education teachers can incorporate content area concepts into their teaching. Our

team will supplement her findings by offering strategies of our own from the inverse

perspective— that is, how content area teachers can reinforce physical activity by bringing

physical education into their classrooms/curricula.

Mathematics. Physical education teachers can cover such math concepts as calculation,

conversion of measurement, and graphing during activities. For instance, if students are going to

bowl, their physical education teacher can have them calculate how many lanes can be made in

their provided gymnasium space as well as how long each lane should be in different units (i.e.

feet, yards, meters, etc.). They can also be tasked with dividing themselves into teams equally

and plotting each other’s scores, which gives them data to analyze over time.

Meanwhile, some ways math teachers can implement more physical activity into their

classrooms include teaching projectile motion with different types of balls, having students

model various quantities and symbols with their bodies (e.g. creating yoga poses to depict

numbers, moving their arms for inequality symbols, etc.), having students do multiple exercises

to graph/calculate how their performance changes over time, and more. They can also work

students fine and gross motor skills by having them participate in probability games (i.e.

determining the probability of bouncing a ball into a cup three times in a row, of getting five
perfect scores in a row in a DDR-like dance, etc.).

Science. Physical education courses span both physical exercise and physical

health/nutrition. It ties in quite well with several areas of science as a result. To illustrate,

physical education teachers can reinforce the concept of physics by having students engage in a

sport in multiple settings and then examine how force, friction, momentum, gravity, and more

alter based on equipment and environment. Similarly, science teachers can mirror this practice in

and out of their own classrooms; they can even arrange for field trips to amusement parks, for

example, so that students can witness physics in action all while partaking in fun physical

experiences. Going back to physical education teachers, they can provide more insight into

human health and nutrition on both a biological and chemical level to help strengthen students’

scientific backgrounds. If they step up to the plate and give supplemental education on more of

the conceptual/theoretical information behind the complex human body, then science teachers

can invest more time in hands-on, interesting physical procedures like dissections, gardening to

grow produce, creating experiments, and so on.

Social studies/history. One strong social studies/history topic physical education

teachers can address is that of government and its three branches. For example, they can divide

students into three groups to represent the executive, judicial, and legislative branches and have

them complete an equal amount of physical challenges to connect to the idea that each branch

must carry out laborious tasks to operate the country efficiently. To promote healthy competition

along with an understanding of how the different branches can use their individual powers to

influence policy making, physical education teachers can have the teams/branches compete in an

assortment of physical activities; whichever branch emerges victorious can decide what law shall

be enforced, although the other branches can subsequently challenge the supposed winner to
more games to overrule their decision.

As for social studies/history teachers, an enjoyable way in which they can incorporate

physical activity into the classroom is by allowing students to explore the different cultures and

time periods through their iconic dances, games, and role plays. To illustrate, social

studies/history teachers can offer students insight into the American dance and music culture of

the 1920s by having them try out the foxtrot or jitterbug, or they can try out traditional games

originating from Ancient Greece and Rome. On the topic of initiating role plays, social

studies/history teachers must be careful when choosing scenarios for students to act out; that is,

they must ensure that the content in role plays is not culturally insensitive, violent, etc. Some

possible concepts worth exploring pertain to agriculture, industry, political meetings and treaty

signings, and so on.

English language arts (ELA). English language arts (ELA) can be broken up into four

parts: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Each of these areas can easily be woven into the

physical education curriculum. For instance, physical education teachers can collaborate with

ELA teachers to see what vocabulary words, parts of speech, and other similar content students

are studying in class. Then they can have students review these concepts through a bulls-eye

activity; during this activity, depending on where their dart (or safer substitute) lands on the

board, students will have to define the corresponding ring’s word, list synonyms/antonyms, use it

in a sentence, and so on. Other possible ways to incorporate ELA into physical education entail

having students read task cards at stations to perform certain physical activities and collaborate

on writing up and sharing a game plan for sports.

ELA classrooms are often perceived as strict, work-focused spaces where students are

stuck at their desks reading and writing dully. However, strategic implementation of physical
activity can bring the ELA curriculum to life. ELA teachers can use physical activity to enhance

their content in a variety of ways. Acting out dialogues and/or roleplaying, for example, enables

students to adopt new personas and move around in diverse contexts; doing so challenges them

to both analyze plot elements in depth and convey stories to the people around them through

well-thought-out language and body language. Formal and informal debates make for another

example of good physical activity integration. In these formats, students are constantly moving

around to different corners of the room to justify their opinions and arguments, thus supporting

critical thinking and physical engagement.

Fine arts. Given the multifaceted nature of the fine arts subject, physical education

teachers can integrate aspects of art and music/performance with ease. To illustrate, physical

education teachers can encourage students to design flyers, posters, and other related visuals

regarding relevant nutrition information and the benefits of an active lifestyle. Additionally, they

can teach students diverse dance moves to utilize in choreographies/performances.

Fine arts teachers naturally promote physical activity in their classes in the way that they

have students build and set up stage props, dance to and design choreographies, exercise fine and

gross motor skills when crafting art, and the like. Continued emphasis on such practices helps

students to become more cultured and interested in doing hard work alongside their peers.

Physical education teachers and content area teachers both play integral roles in the

school community. Neither should be viewed as more necessary or competent than the other

when it comes to education; rather, thoughtful collaboration between the two parties can yield

complementary instructional practices that are highly engaging and informative. It is important

for teachers to establish a balance between mental exercise and physical exercise when

structuring lessons.

Given how important physical activity is to students’ overall well-beings, schools should

strive to provide students with content classes enriched with physical activity, after-school

activities, physical education classes, in-class brain breaks, recess, and more. Providing the bare

minimum will not help students develop positive, sustainable attitudes toward living healthily.

“There are approximately 25 million obese children in the United States today, and that number

continues to grow” (“How Do We Best Advocate,” 2015, p. 55). Rather than contributing to this

alarming statistic, schools should stay aware of youth health in the community as well as

collaborate with stakeholders to make internal and external improvements. School personnel can

augment physical activity levels and curb obesity rates, poor school performances, risky

behaviors, etc. by marrying traditional academic content with physical education and activity to

design more well-rounded, valuable curricula; furthermore, they can model good physical

practices themselves and provide encouragement to inspire students to perform more physical

activity in and out of school. In all, students need thorough, quality physical education and plenty

of opportunities for physical activity in their schools. After all, schools are responsible for

ensuring that their students grow into worthwhile adults with positive self-views, good health

(physical, mental, and emotional), solid self-care skills, and big dreams.

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