Sutter County students are still more fit than their Yuba County counterparts, but all are less fit overall than they were the previous year, according to the latest state testing results.
School district officials say a change in testing may be a primary cause for the physical fitness decline, but the fact that only a third of students are posting healthy scores in all six categories remains a concern. Perhaps even more alarming, they said, is so many of the area’s students classify as high risk for future health problems because of their body mass index.
In Sutter County, 33.7 percent of fifth-graders, 32.6 percent of seventh-graders and 26 percent of ninth-graders fell into the high-risk category. In Yuba County, 32.7 percent of fifth-graders, 31.8 percent of seventh-graders and 29.4 percent of ninth-graders were rated high-risk.
The obesity epidemic among the nation’s youth has been discussed for decades, yet physical activity in schools continues to disappear, said Bernie Rechs, a longtime sports coach and Marysville Unified School District trustee. One of the biggest challenges to school fitness programs is state requirements.
“When the state mandates new classes for graduation, the electives get tossed — and the first ones to go are P.E.,” he said.
Rechs also said he thinks mandated testing takes up precious school hours that could be used for instruction like physical ed cation.
He remembers as a high school student he had to have four units of physical education. Today, students only need two; and when Rechs visits schools, he notices many students do not even dress down to participate in the P.E. classes they have.
The erosion of afterschool sports programs because of funding cuts is another problem, Rechs said. Gymnastics is gone, boys and girls tennis teams have been combined into one, and intermediate school wrestling and track programs are on the chopping block.
“In the short run, it saves a few bucks; but in the long run, it hurts,” Rechs said.
For the state physical fitness testing, students are tested in six categories: aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extensor strength, upper body strength, and flexibility.
An average of 28.6 percent of Yuba County fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders posted healthy scores in all six fitness areas, compared to 33.8 percent in Sutter County. Statewide, only 31 percent of the state’s 1.34 million students tested posted healthy scores in all six areas.
Yuba City Unified has been making progress in recent years. It set a goal for 70 percent of its students to achieve at least five out of six fitness areas, starting with 46.7 percent of fifth-graders in 2005, 53.3 percent in 2007 and 68.9 percent in 2010.
But a change in state standards has made it difficult for the district to know its progress since last year because the major indicators of aerobic capacity and body mass index are no longer comparable, said physical education specialist Ben LiaBraaten.
If the standards had stayed the same, the fifth-graders would have posted an 1.4 percent increase in body composition. Instead, the numbers are lower than they’ve been in years.
“We are not comparing apples to apples, so what can we do?” he said. “I feel like we have had some positive results — and as the standards change, we just have to adjust and move forward.”
YCUSD Trustee Fred Northern said the problem extends beyond school.
“This is a societal problem, and we are trying to do our best and make kids aware of the choices that they make,” he said.
It’s important to teach children habits they can and should practice all their life to confront what they face when they are not in school, he said.
“It seems like the worst food for you is the easiest to get. We can drive through and get things that are not good for you because it’s easiest and cheapest,” he said. “We can do better to give them more lifelong lessons.”
Marysville Joint Unified has been trying to target student fitness with nutrition in recent years through compliance with new federal wellness policies, said nutrition services director Mary Driscoll.
Vending machines were removed from student access, salad bars were implemented in all schools, and a partnership with local farmers is providing fresh seasonal produce. Also, the district’s request for food bids this year asked that 100 percent of bread products be whole-grain.
“If you have more fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains, it helps make our nutrient requirement but it’s better for the body,” Driscoll said. “I don’t know what they get outside the schools; so if the schools at least do our part, that helps.”
She thinks that the fitness effort should equally focus on physical education. With a granddaughter in one of the district’s schools, she said physical education opportunities may meet requirements but are limited, to say the least.
“In my opinion, that’s where we are falling short. We need to some way, somehow find funding to get these kids out moving,” Driscoll said.
The biggest obstacles to physical fitness are lack of physical activity, poor nutrition and wellness, and time spent on TVs, digital devices and other screens, LiaBraaten said. He is an advocate for early intervention.
“We want kids to learn what it feels like to be healthy so there is a better chance of achieving that and maintaining that,” he said. “If a child is obese at 5 or 6, will they ever have a chance to know what it’s like to feel healthy or be physically fit? That’s scary.”