U.S. kids score a D- for physical activity

Among the many local efforts to get children to exercise is the Charleston Marathon's "Youth Marathon," which gets participating schools to run a cumulative 26.2 miles in the weeks leading up to the event.

In the first-ever "report card" evaluating the physical activity of the nation's children, the final results, not surprisingly, are less than stellar and probably an indication that South Carolina's is even worse.

And yet, on a local level, there have been positive initiatives and reasons for hope.

But first, the report.

A week ago, the "United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth" was released at a Congressional Fitness Caucus briefing on Capitol Hill. The report included several key indicators that were evaluated through a collaboration led by the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The report card looked at several areas that affect activity, including sedentary behaviors, organized sport participation, active play, health-related fitness, transportation and others, but overall gave the physical activity of kids a D-.

In a nutshell, only one-fourth of the children ages 6-15 meet the current guideline of 60 minutes of moderate physical activity per day.

The chairman of the alliance hails from South Carolina and put the report in perspective, in regards to what it means for the Palmetto State.

Russ Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health, says the report card relied exclusively on nationally represented data, but that "if state grades were assigned, it is likely that children in South Carolina would rate at that level or lower."

Pate adds that the goal of the report card is to provide a baseline evaluation in order to track future progress.

"The National Physical Activity Plan also includes many recommended strategies that can be applied in promoting physical activity in youth," says Pate, adding that the grades in the report card underscore the importance of how aggressively the community should be in providing children with opportunities for physical activity.

Pate adds that increasing physical activity among South Carolina's children, who have among the highest rates of obesity in the nation, is "an essential step in overcoming that huge public health problem."

Daniel Bornstein, an assistant professor of health, exercise and sport science at The Citadel, also has been immersed in studying the nation's physical activity levels in his role as project coordinator for the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan.

Bornstein says many of the stakeholders, from schools and governments to transportation officials and businesses, often wonder what role they have in this issue. He says everyone must play a role.

"We need to call upon policymakers to create environments that will support physical activity," says Bornstein, adding that "policymakers" include all authorities, not just lawmakers.

"Our local school principals, business owners, law enforcement officials, transportation planners and others all have jurisdiction over environments that can either support or thwart physical activity," says Bornstein.

Like most communities, he says efforts in Charleston should focus on those "most in need."

"Those most in need are those with the highest rates of disease," says Bornstein, noting those are people with lower incomes and lower levels of education.

Bornstein says the critical first step is to have the mayor, local business leaders and others fully commit to development and implementation of a Physical Activity Plan for Charleston that's based on the National Physical Activity Plan, as has been done in cities such as San Antonio, Texas

"Developing a Physical Activity Plan for Charleston will not only help Charlestonians live longer with less disease, it will help make Charleston substantially more economically and socially vibrant than it already is," says Bornstein.

Louis Yuhasz, founder of the Charleston-based Louie's Kids, has been on the frontline of the childhood obesity epidemic for 13 years and describes the report card as "a lot of the same, over and over."

"The truth is the numbers (of obese children) are climbing in spite of what the White House and many others are doing," says Yuhasz. "It's ridiculous we have to fight for gym class for middle schoolers ... (and) ignore the fact that kids are asked to sit behind a desk for hours on end. It's ridiculous."

Yuhasz says California is starting to innovate by letting children go the health clubs and other physical fitness facilities and have instructors sign off for the required gym credit. He's talked to a top local school authority about doing the same here.

Susan Johnson, director of Health Promotion at the Medical University of South Carolina, says she wasn't surprised by the report and that "sadly it hasn't changed at all" since she was working on her doctorate with the S.C. Physical Education Assessment Program in the late 1990's.

"We were killing ourselves to get required PE and required physical activity in all grades," recalls Johnson. "I fear (inactivity) is only getting worse and with the amount of time kids spend in school, we are missing a huge opportunity to positively impact their health.

And while Johnson is starting to doubt if the federal and state governments will prioritize movement in education, she sees positive signs locally, pointing to efforts by people such as Charleston County School District's physical education director Dave Spurlock and his leadership locally and nationally on "action-based learning."

And Johnson is right. As government seems painfully slow to respond, both public and private efforts in the Charleston area are impressive.

The MUSC Boeing Center for Children's Wellness has been successful in getting schools in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties to adopt wellness committees and fulfill checklists of fitness and healthy eating initiatives on an individual school level.

In fact, the center holds a competition at the end of the school year with the top school getting a trophy and a cash prize. This year's "Wellness Round Table" awards ceremony will be May 21 at Burke High School.

By the way, the representatives of the center hold weekly walks for all at 9 a.m. Saturdays on the Cooper River bridge.

The running community has stepped up as well. Many local 5Ks also have shorter kids runs. And the Charleston Marathon holds a "Youth Marathon," in which schools have children run 25 miles in mile increments in the months leading up to the marathon, when all the kids come together for a 1.2-mile marathon, also at Burke.

The S.C. Outdoor Education Program gets school children to outdoor field trips that require that half the time be spent "in motion." The program is a collaboration between the New York-based Butler Outdoor Education Fund, created by venture capitalist and avid environmentalist and fitness enthusiast Gilbert Butler and local private outfitter Coastal Expeditions.

Other programs are happening on a smaller scale. Originally created as Salty Kidz, the rebranded Youth 2 Ocean seeks to get less privileged children outdoors to surf, paddleboard, do yoga and hike. The free program opened its season Saturday.

Chucktown Squash provides not only athletic training via the sport of squash, but academic guidance and community service via an afternoon program that serves as a springboard, "preparing low-resource, middle school kids for wide-reaching success in the classroom, on the squash court and in life."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.