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Weighty Issues
by Greg Russell

Childhood obesity in the U.S. is a rising epidemic that may have far reaching consequences. Three professors at the U of M are tackling this issue with research designed to trim down the problem.

On a cold, blustery morning in early December, U of M professor Dr. Ben Dyson laced up his running shoes and went for a “simple” 13-mile run in downtown Memphis.

“I value the many benefits of exercise,” says Dyson, who was taking part in the St. Jude Half Marathon.

In other words, you might say Dyson practices what he preaches.

Dyson, along with Fogelman College of Business & Economics professor Dr. John Amis and College of Education professor Dr. Paul Wright, are reaching into the community with research to battle a rising epidemic in the United States: childhood obesity. The three professors combined with Center for Community Health director Dr. Ken Ward to receive a $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a two-year study that examines how legislation mandating physical education trickles down to schools and how the weight of school children is ultimately affected.

school children taking part in the Let Me Play field day.
These Memphis-area school children taking part in a "Let Me Play" field day sponsored by Nike on the U of M campus have stayed fit and trim by knowing the value of exercise. Researchers at the U of M are studying the benefits of physical exercise as part of a curriculum in area schools.
“Obesity among school-age kids has increased dramatically in the last 30 years,” says Dyson. “The stats are horrendous. It is related to diet and the amount of exercise a person gets. We have had a tremendous decrease in physical education in schools since the early 1990s.”

Adds Amis, “Childhood obesity is the critical social issue of our time. What we’re trying to understand is how the context of what goes on in schools makes it difficult to implement policies regarding P.E. There is clearly a problem because policies are not being implemented effectively. We want to find out why this is the case.”

Wright says the potential impact of the study will help improve the policy process. “Too often, policies are simplistic and do not consider practical issues around communication and implementation of the policy. The objective of our study is to help policy makers understand what contextual factors might influence policy implementation at the front end so their potential to have a meaningful impact on the problem of obesity will be greater.”

And what better spot for the study? Men’s Health Journal last year named Memphis as the most unfit city in the United States. It doesn’t take a Richard Simmons or a Jack LaLanne to figure out the problem: just take a stroll through local schools and you don’t have to look long to find children who have biggie sized it one time too many.

“Tennessee is one of the worst states in the nation for childhood obesity and obesity in general,” says Amis. “Mississippi is ranked No. 1 for childhood obesity and Tennessee is usually around No. 3.”

child playing with a hula hoopData from a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 32 percent of American schoolchildren are overweight. In 1980, 6.5 percent of children age 6 to 11 were obese, but by 1994 that number had risen to 11.3 percent and has climbed to 17 percent at present. An obese child is one that has a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile on U.S. growth charts. Overweight is defined as at or above the 85th percentile.

Only about 5 percent of children in the 1960s and 1970s were in the obese range.

The three professors and two graduate assistants studied eight area rural and city schools to develop an understanding of how physical education policies are being interpreted in schools and why or why not these policies are making an impact.

“We interview P.E. teachers, principals, guidance counselors, parents and the students to find out what happens in their schools in regards to P.E.,” says health and sport sciences graduate assistant Hugh Ferry. Ferry and management doctoral student James Vardaman are two graduate students involved in the study who have done “sterling work,” the researchers say.

Amis says that the researchers are finding that school administrators are under immense pressure to show academic progress among their students. Often, physical education is being ignored.

“No Child Left Behind has come in and moved the goal post — teachers and principals and other administrators are now getting very visibly assessed on how children perform academically,” says Amis. “So what we are seeing is that anything that is not considered one of these academic marker subjects is going by the wayside. That might be art, music or physical education.”

Adds Dyson, “As long as they’re doing well in their TCAP or Gateway, the administrators are satisfied. The health of the student is not on the agenda.”

Dyson says that much of the problem began in the early 1990s when an emphasis on physical education in elementary through high schools was greatly diminished across the country. Many schools completely did away with P.E. At Mid-South high schools, kids are required to only take one year of P.E. from grade 9 to 12. Half of that year is spent in a classroom studying wellness. “And we ask why our adolescents are overweight,” Dyson says.

“My child bought a gym uniform and never used it,” says Elizabeth Walker, whose child attends a Shelby County school.

A bipartisan bill initiated by state senators Bill Ketron, Roy Herron and Craig Fitzhugh was passed in Tennessee last year that mandates 90 minutes of physical activity per week for school age kids. Legislators funded the Coordinated School Health program at $14 million, much less than the $60 million Ketron sought. “Money is a key factor [in mandating daily P.E.],” says Dyson.

The researchers say they have discovered that when legislation is passed, there is a “disconnect between the policy and how it filters down to schools.”

“One problem is that some principals are saying walking to class is physical activity,” says Dyson. “They can get their 90 minutes in by the kids walking to class or getting kids to stand up in their math class and doing five minutes of jumping jacks.”

He says that it is important to articulate the difference between P.E., which involves more structured activities, and physical activity, which he says can be “anything.”

“There are no physical education police,” Dyson says. “There are no accountability mechanisms to determine that kids are being physically active in schools. So at the moment in Tennessee, even though it is a law and its K-12, many kids don’t exercise.

“There are middle schools in this city I am aware of that do not have P.E. in Grade 6, 7 or 8 ... it depends on the school and it depends on the principal’s focus. These principals are breaking the law. Those kids are not getting 90 minutes of physical activity — they can’t be.”

The researchers say that currently there is not much incentive or motivation for kids to take part in structured P.E. activities.

“We have found that kids’ participation in Memphis City Schools is very low — they sit out or aren’t even dressed for it,” Dyson notes. “We have kids avoiding P.E. Why? The P.E. content isn’t very interesting. I get very frustrated with P.E. teachers because the content they offer is not stimulating.”

Amis says the gym is often seen as just a place to house students. “All these things add up to a psychological message being sent about the importance of physical education within the schools — not just to the teachers, but also to the kids as well,” he says.

Dyson says the study also examined what kids do after school and how that might affect their weight.

“We asked kids, ‘What do you do when you go home from school?’” says Dyson. “Number one, they said they talk on the phone, they text message, they watch TV, they get on the Internet. We asked kids what they like to eat; they said, ‘McDonalds.’”

At the national level, Dyson says a major driving force to combat childhood obesity has been the American Heart Association. One of its initiatives, the FIT Kids Act, would allow for funding for physical education within “No Child Left Behind.”

Dyson, along with representatives from the AHA, University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt, are part of a Tennessee Task Force designed to develop an obesity plan for the state.

“The bottom line, it is a very complex issue,” he says. “It needs to be attacked by a number of folks at a number of different levels.”

Ferry, a former U of M track standout who is still fit, says he doesn’t want to see society crumble with health-care costs.

“People are blaming fast food, schools, video games — I don’t know if any one thing is to blame. I think it is a cultural thing. I just want to try to get kids moving. A kid doesn’t know what he or she is doing to him- or herself. I don’t want to see all these people starting life off when they’re done with high school with this massive disorder.”

Adds Dyson, “Obesity can act like a disease, and once it takes a hold of somebody, then it becomes a pathological problem. It is related to someone’s physiology, to someone’s health habits, to someone’s income.”

Ultimately, the researchers are hopeful that the study will cause educators to understand the importance of P.E.

“It seems as if we’re sort of in a state of panic because of this childhood obesity epidemic,” says Dyson. “People are scrambling and wanting to do something about it. One of the ways to work on it is P.E. I really do think that we can make a difference.”

Amis says he feels it is the University’s responsibility to focus on the problem.

“If we’re going to be one of the great urban universities, if we are truly going to be that, then we have to be addressing the great issues and this is certainly one of them,” Amis says.

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