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Sunday, February 26, 2006, 12:32:23 PM

Kids' physical fitness shows slim progress
RESULTS SOMEWHAT BETTER IN SANTA CLARA COUNTY

San Jose Mercury News By: Dana Hull: Posted Tue., Nov. 22, 2005

Despite new programs designed to make California's schoolchildren healthier, only about one in four of them ran, curled, stretched and lifted enough to pass this year's state physical fitness test.

The results show a slight improvement from previous years, and Bay Area kids generally outperform the state average. But the disappointing results reinforced concerns about childhood obesity, nutrition and the increasingly sedentary lives of today's young people.

''Kids just don't get the physical activity that they used to,'' said Susan Aldrich, who is coordinating a ''Healthy Start'' grant in six downtown San Jose schools and hopes to create a teen health council at San Jose High.

Education leaders attribute the poor results to several factors. Video games and instant messaging have replaced kickball and bike riding as favorite activities. Many schools -- particularly those under intense pressure to raise standardized test scores -- have moved away from rigorous physical education classes so they can spend more time on academics. And in some school districts, the physical education teacher only works part time, or travels from school to school.

Recommitting
''A silent epidemic of obesity and poor nutrition is endangering our children's health and their ability to learn,'' said Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction. ''This physical fitness test is just one more reminder that we need to rededicate our commitment to turn this trend around.''

Each spring, all fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-graders take the physical fitness test, which includes a mile-long run and push-ups. The test assesses six major fitness areas, including aerobic capacity, percentage of body fat, abdominal strength and endurance, trunk strength and flexibility, upper body strength and endurance, and overall flexibility.

More than 1.3 million students were tested in 2005, the sixth year the test has been given.

But only 25 percent of students in grade five, 29 percent in grade seven, and 27 percent in grade nine achieved the fitness standards for all six areas of the test.

The results were better in Santa Clara County, particularly among high school freshmen: 35 percent of the county's ninth-graders met six of six fitness standards, as did 26 percent of fifth-graders and 33 percent of seventh-graders.

But the physical fitness results varied widely, even within the same school district.

Health educators note that physical fitness is often linked to affluence. Some say that students from wealthier families are more likely to participate in little league baseball, soccer or other athletic programs that cost money outside of school. Access to quality health care is another issue. And affluent communities are far more likely to have grocery stores that feature fresh and organic fruits and vegetables.

San Jose Unified's Leland High School is an academic and athletic powerhouse located in Almaden Valley, where many kids get involved in sports leagues at young ages. Fifty-four percent of Leland's ninth-graders met all six of the fitness standards.

Healthy initiatives
But at San Jose High Academy, which serves a less affluent population, only 13.2 percent of freshman met all of the physical fitness standards.

To that end, a number of efforts are under way to promote healthier eating and more exercise.

San Jose Unified is phasing out soda from all campus vending machines and is a few months away from having a central kitchen, which will make it easier for the district's nutrition team to plan and prepare healthy meals.

Santa Clara County has kicked off ''Fit for Learning,'' a countywide initiative to address childhood obesity by incorporating physical fitness into classroom learning. Currently focused on fifth-graders, the program is scheduled to expand to K-6 next year.

''We've seen that fitness and nutrition connect with how kids are doing academically,'' said Steve Berta, the county office's director of health education. ''The better kids do on the fitness test, the better they do on test scores.''

Berta said kids who are physically fit also are probably eating better and sleeping well -- all activities that increase academic performance.

So far, the county has recruited more than 100 people -- mostly fifth-grade teachers and administrators -- to be ''Fit for Learning'' Champions, or role models for fitness and nutrition at individual schools.