At 9:30 a.m. sharp on a Tuesday morning, all 1,200 elementary school students at PS 166 in Queens, New York stood up and began doing jumping jacks in unison with a Beatles song blaring over the loudspeaker.
In Ms. Dianna Chappell’s third grade class, some kids began panting near the end of the required two minutes. One boy even stopped jumping momentarily, doubling over in exhaustion. “Oh come on! I’m much older than you!” Chappell yelled, as she continued jumping.
When the session was over, several sweaty students asked permission to go to the water fountain.
“We’re 15 weeks in and they’re still struggling,” joked P.S. 166 Principal Jessica Geller “You’ll hear a lot of heavy breathing.”
The number of out of shape kids at PS 166, an ethnically diverse, lower-income New York City public school, isn’t unusual. Just 4 percent of elementary schools in the U.S. offer daily physical education classes, according to a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
As part of her “Let’s Move!” initiative to combat childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has encouraged schools to incorporate short exercise breaks into the school day, and to make recess and physical education a priority.
Obama and other advocates point to a growing body of research that shows physically fit kids are better students, and that physical education can reduce behavioral problems in the classroom.
“The fitter you are, the better of a student you are,” said John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark,” a book about the connection between exercise and mental ability.
At PS 166, Geller cobbled together $5,000 in grants from New York City’s education department and other sources to institute regular two minute physical activity bursts every morning, which the school calls “brain breaks.” Teachers are also trying to add another 15 minutes of other exercise, particularly Tai Chi movements, as a way to compensate for the school’s infrequent recess, which leaves some of the children restless and antsy.
The recess yard at PS 166 is a small concrete area outside that can only fit about three classes at once, which forces the school to limit outdoor recess to just once a week for the kids.
First grade teacher Leonida Waxman said she thinks using Tai Chi and other brain breaks has improved behavior in her class.
“We definitely need to be more active,” Waxman said. “There’s more and more time devoted to academics. They sit and work and read and write all day long.”
Some of Waxman’s students said the Tai Chi motions help them focus. “My favorite is moving the clouds,” said Max, a first grader, referencing the Tai Chi arm waving motion. “When you’re really restless you can do that move and it helps you calm down.”
Ratey said short brain breaks are “better than nothing,” but that ideally students should be getting an hour a day of physical activity.
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel attributes the decline in gym and recess in schools to an increased, federally mandated focus on student test scores that began with the No Child Left Behind law of 2001, as well as budget cuts.
“We very much support the idea of putting P.E. back in schools,” Van Roekel said of the membership of the nation’s largest teachers’ union.
He added that some schools have been forced to cut back in order to increase time for drilling students on reading and math.
“It seems like they’ve forgotten kids are more than test scores,” Van Roekel said.
Ratey says the trade off is ultimately self-defeating, since physical activity boosts academic performance. “They’re doing what they think is best, but what actually is happening is that they’re eliminating a very important part of their curriculum,” Ratey said.
While encouraging more physical education in schools, the Obama administration has also continued to stress the importance of standardized testing -- encouraging states to tie teacher performance ratings in part on student test scores. Education advocates argue it is the best way to bring accountability to schools and ensure students are learning.
One low-income public school in South Lawrence, Massachusetts has experimented with building its entire curriculum around physical activity without decreasing the time students spend in class.
At the 5th Grade Academy, students get two hours of physical activity each day, including a 20-minute recess, to break up their 80-minute blocks of academic classes. But in order to fit in all the exercise, the school has had to expand to an eight-hour day, stretching from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Thomas Bean, one of the founders of the school, said he believes attendance and academic performance have improved dramatically at the school since they expanded the day and added exercise. Nearly 90 percent of the students at the school receive free or reduced school lunch, and Bean said many struggle with obesity.
Bean said he hopes the school’s model can be expanded to other schools – a tricky proposal, since extending the day requires teachers and staff to be paid more.
“The kids know they’re part of something special, that our program is different,” Bean said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of students at PS 166.