Alot of us — way too many of us — play catch-up as adults when it comes to physical fitness. To give you some idea of the magnitude of the effort, there are more than 250 personal trainers, fitness coaches and health experts just in the La Cañada and Pasadena area. That doesn't even include fitness clubs or gyms like the YMCA or 24 Hour Fitness.
Instead of staying active, we tend to become less active as our personal and work commitments increase. Then we try to catch up. That's unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, it's deadly. America is suffering an obesity epidemic as we become more and more sedentary. But it's also unfortunate because there is a relationship between physical activity and mental health, and that link is particularly important for students.
Adolescence isn't easy. Hormones wax and wane, social skills are challenged by new circumstances, and far too many students wind up feeling depressed, anxious or otherwise out of sorts.
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Physical activity can help in many ways. First, by providing exercise, of course. But also by providing opportunities to sharpen social skills while participating in team sports and activities, and also by enabling students to burn off some of the excess energy that makes them inclined to be inattentive in class.
One of the reasons physical education is often shunned is the idea that in order to benefit, you have to be really good at a particular sport or activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Exercise can take many forms, and you don't need to be an athlete to take part in and enjoy physical activity. Even a simple walk can be beneficial, helping to invigorate, restore and stimulate all at once. It can be academically inspirational to be outdoors and simply appreciate the beauty of a tree or the sound of a stream. Studies show that regular exercise can help with depression and increase mental acuity. Perhaps you've problem-solved by taking a walk or run and found that solutions suddenly become much clearer.
There is another important reason for making physical education a part of the educational plan. The patterns of many things established in young adulthood are likely to persist. If you read extensively as a teenager, you are likely to read heavily as an adult. And if physical activity is a routine part of your teenage life, you are much more likely to find ways to continue that activity as you age — much to your benefit.
Group physical activities teach cooperation and problem-solving skills. It doesn't have to be a sport to get the job done. These skills can be taught through games and other activities. Have you ever tried to get across a stream? Students at Hillside break into teams and combine thinking and doing in figuring out how to build a bridge across the stream in Hahamongna Park after it rains. The students get more exercise lifting rocks and logs than if they ran around a track.
Physical education, in a variety of forms and formats, should be seen as an important part of every student's education. It contributes to both physical and mental health and it just might establish a pattern that prolongs his or her life while maximizing the quality of that life.
ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master's of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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