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Physical Education: A Possible Way to Decrease Heart Disease Risk in Youth
Last Updated: 12/14/2009

In November 2009, at the annual American Heart Association meeting in Orlando FL, German researchers reported something that many have suspected. That is, daily physical education helps decrease cardiovascular risk among children who come from families of lower economic streams. Children with higher levels of body fat and lower levels of physical activity are considered more susceptible to diabetes, the start of cardiovascular disease and other degenerative conditions that come to fruition in adulthood.

Here are the most significant findings of the study:

  1. Children from poorer neighborhoods, who participated in daily physical education for a year, increased their fat-free mass by 2.6% when compared to children who attended twice a week classes. Fat-free mass refers to either increased lean muscle tissue, decreased body fat or most likely both.
  2. Additional analysis showed an increase in endothelial progenitor cells (in blood vessel walls) with daily exercise, along with a trend for reduced body mass index (BMI). Endothelial progenitor cells have been linked to better vascular health AND the ability to repair vascular damage. People with higher BMI scores have a greater risk for diabetes and heart disease.
  3. Physical fitness measures among children from poorer economic families improved. These measures included maximum oxygen consumption (maxVO2), maximum workload and oxygen uptake at highest levels. The enhancements suggest better working capacity and possibly reduced heart disease risk.

The researchers (led by Claudia Walther, MD) from the University of Leipzig noted the data suggests that “primary prevention by means of increasing physical activity should start in childhood”. This statement and the study itself reinforce the American Heart Association’s recommendation that schools provide at least 30 minutes of physical activity during the school day.

The fact that children from poorer economic standing had lower fitness levels and higher number of risk factors than children from higher economic communities support a study I performed at the University of Michigan. We found that children from lower socioeconomic communities and neighborhoods had a higher BMI scores, skin folds (a sign of too much body fat) and blood pressures. They also had lower levels of cardiovascular, core and upper body strength and flexibility fitness than those children who came from more affluent areas.

Physical education is a great equalizer. At times, we educators become fixated on making sure that children learn the basics (math/reading skills) and we forget that children need plenty of exercise to help them meet a most basic need: adequate health. Without adequate health no one (adult or child) can perform at optimally.

Charlie Kuntzleman

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