Letter to the editor: Smarter approach to school sports will boost health
Both Vermont and the nation as a whole are in the midst of one of the worst epidemics in U.S. history. It’s an epidemic that has had dire consequences for nearly all aspects of living, most notably, and too often tragically, with the youth of Vermont. The rapidly declining health of our children is associated with our exploding opiate addiction, leads to the excessive medication of our kids and swamps our healthcare system. The good news is this epidemic is entirely reversible and within our immediate control.
As a school administrator I have too often seen larger societal issues come our way for correction. However, with improving student’s life-long health, our educational system is best equipped to lead the charge. Indeed, Vermont’s educational system has a sacred obligation to systematically reverse our current health trend as improvement in this area will see improvement with our kids’ academics, self-perception and positive societal engagement.
The data supporting the severity of the situation is such that all studies conducted from all over the world point to one conclusion: improvement with exercise and diet will reverse most significant health issues. Separate studies involving over 3 million students conducted in 2009 by the New York City Health Department and Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency reported that physically fit students were more likely to succeed at school and have fewer disciplinary problems.
California and Georgia also conducted exercise and cognition studies with similar results. Results of an August 2016 study from Sweden published in the “European Journal of Preventive Cardiology” concluded, “poor physical fitness amounts to nearly as high a risk of premature death as tobacco smoking and appears to be more lethal than hypertension and cholesterol.”
A more regional study published in “Neuroscience” was conducted by Dartmouth University Professor David Bucci after colleagues at the University of Vermont made note that students with ADHD responded better to behavioral intervention than those who were inactive. “As a youngster, your brain is still developing,” Bucci said. “One of the contributors to its development is this growth stuff. By exercising, you’re taking advantage and capitalizing on this period of development and plasticity.”
One issue we face when trying to combat our pervasive health issues is the tendency to rely on a sports system that is designed to continually funnel down the number of participants as they become older. These are also the students who often have the greatest need of any physical exercise. Traditional athletics have a very limited role in improving our nation’s health; in actuality our continued emphasis of traditional sports may be hindering our ability to reverse the epidemic.
For the better part of 100 years, society has funneled youth fitness into team sports that restrict the number of players that may participate. The most popular sports attached to our educational system are basketball, football, soccer, baseball and softball. These sports will see roughly 30 percent of our students participate. The education of the past 100 years has been an industrial model where all students receive the same instruction, are asked to complete the same tasks in the same manner while following the instructions of the teacher.
Traditional sports follow suit: all student-athletes receive the same physical education instruction, complete the same drills taught in the same manner by following the instructions of the coach. This is an outdated and ineffective model. The modern learner should be inquiring, researching, collaborating worldwide, assessing and performing (publishing). The modern student-athlete should do the same by establishing athletic goals, researching how to get there, collaborating with coaches, peers and experts from around the world, practicing (assessing) and performing.
Unlike with today’s academics, however, athletics does not need to completely change; we should keep traditional sports while vastly expanding lifelong athletic opportunities that allow full participation regardless of ability or disability. Expanding student athletic options to include obstacle racing, year-round road/trail races, fitness challenges, climbing competitions, endurance events, etc., is proving to be more adaptable, effective and ultimately more interesting to high school students.
At Fair Haven High School, our physical education teachers actually personalize fitness plans for every student in the school. The result of this effort has been very fruitful for student health and fitness, and possibly for the increased academic achievement of the entire school.
Every Vermont student should also create four-year personalized fitness plans as part of their state mandated learning plans. With every student establishing fitness goals with means to both realize and assess those goals, we can empower students to control their own health.
So much of today’s news comes our way with a deep sense of both helplessness and hopelessness. Whether it be with national politics or international terrorism, the sense of doom and gloom can become pervasive. With our current health epidemic, however, there need not be any such pessimism. We have the immediate means to reverse and permanently improve student health. While it will not be easy, by creating four-year fitness plans and expanding athletic options to include full participatory sports, our students will leave our educational system with the skills and knowledge for lifelong health.
Brett Blanchard, principal
Fair Haven Union High School