By Jessica Militello
It’s only been a few weeks since schools dismissed their students for summer break. In the midst of heat waves and beach days, parents may be more focused on making sure their kids are wearing enough sunscreen than their child’s physical education classes from the school year. But Active Plus, an organization that teaches fitness and nutrition to kids in New York City, are already looking to the approaching school year to improve statistics in an education system that has consistently failed to provide even the minimum requirement of physical education for students.
According to a June 2017 report from the New York Lawyers for Public Interest (NYLPI), “On average, only 20% of third graders in New York City are receiving 120 minutes of instruction per week, the required amount of physical education instruction.” While this issue affects all students, the 2017 study revealed that Black and Hispanic students overwhelmingly suffer the most. According to NYLPI, “an average of 19% of Black students and 25% of Hispanic students grades K-5 received the required amount of PE instruction.” Ranked by borough, the report revealed that students in the Bronx had the lowest rates of compliance.
Erin Medina has a 5-year-old son who attends PS 14 in the Bronx. Their physical education classes meet sparingly. A group not related to the school comes once a month to teach students about healthy eating.
“They do have Phys ed classes for the children. I believe it was once a week for about 40 minutes, which is not a lot now that I think of it,” says Medina. “They do have a group come and they teach kids about healthy eating. My son is a picky eater so I was really happy when he came home one day and asked me to buy carrots.”
According to a report from NYC Health, “1 in 5 kindergarten students have diabetes and almost half of all elementary school children are not a healthy weight.” In addition to poor nutritional health, schools often have little to no physical education. 59% of schools lack PE instructors that are certified, according to a report by the New York City Comptroller in 2015.
Wilkins Petitfrere, a certified personal trainer and strength coach in NYC, explains how a lack of education in nutrition early on is a detriment to a child’s health.
“School food is not nutritional and many times kids don’t want to eat it, so they go to the store and buy snacks like chips and candy,” says Petitfrere. “They’re hyped up off the sugar they had at lunch, and they’re not burning it off. Ultimately their blood sugar spikes which causes high insulin levels and leads to diabetes.”
Petitfrere elaborates on the negative effects that take place in the long term as a result.
“Learning bad habits is a long-term process. There’s 16-year old teens who have never been active. They never had gym class and no one talked to them about a healthy diet,” says Petitfrere. “We live in a digital age that is increasingly sedentary with unhealthy mentalities. Social media portrays celebrities, and teens want to know how to look like them. Many times, they are promoting unhealthy products like tummy tea and diet pills.”
In 2015, in response to these troubling statistics, Tarik Kitson founded Active Plus with Miguel Roxas in order to address the obesity and diabetes epidemic that is plaguing the boroughs of New York City. The non-profit organization offers programs for both children and adults. It places an emphasis on programs for children such as sports and nutritional workshops to teach kids healthy eating habits early on. By doing so they present a noble effort to tackle childhood obesity and diabetes statistics.
Providing regular physical activity is not only important to a child’s physical health but it also plays a major role in their mental health and self-esteem. According to The American Heart Association, a recommended minimum of at least an hour of daily physical activity has been linked to “an improved psychological well-being, including gaining more self-confidence and higher self-esteem.”
Dahlia Vidal, a 7th and 8th grade English teacher at IS 10 in Queens feels that regular and consistent physical activity has a positive side effect on how her students learn in school.
“Having students physically engage daily does have a positive effect on their overall mental health,” says Vidal. “They are able to show more resilience when they are tackling a critical problem if they are in a good mood. They perform better in the long-run because it decreases stress and we want our students to learn in an open and stress-free environment.”
In 2017, in response to reports of New York City public schools lacking space for physical education classes and often failing to meet the required minimum of physical activity, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan called the “Universal Physical Education initiative” stating the city will invest $385 million dollars. He plans for every public school in New York City to have adequate gym space and certified physical education instructors by 2021.
While we wait for the results of the mayor’s efforts, Active Plus will continue its noble efforts of providing much needed health and nutrition to schools among the New York City boroughs. As the new school year faithfully approaches, healthy habits are necessary as quickly as possible in order to implement positive change for our youth.
Medina feels for some children, hearing advice from an expert makes them more receptive to absorb information than their own parents.
“Sometimes children don’t want to listen to their parents but they listen to these smart people that go into the school and they have more effective teaching techniques,” says Medina. “I think if it’s in the school curriculum and it’s incorporated daily it could certainly influence them in a positive way and help keep them healthy.”