South Carolina Introduces Bill to Combat Childhood Obesity Through Mandatory Physical Activity and Increased Physical Education

A new proposal is aiming to tackle childhood obesity rates by requiring recess for elementary and middle school students. The bill, discussed by a House panel on Tuesday, would mandate a minimum of 20 minutes of outdoor play every school day for kindergarten through eighth grade students. Additionally, it would increase the time spent on structured physical education classes for sixth through eighth graders from 30 hours to 60 hours per year.

The primary goal of the bill, according to its sponsor Rep. Patrick Haddon, is to encourage students to be more physically active in order to combat obesity rates. Last school year in the state, nearly 40% of students were classified as overweight or obese based on data collected through the SC FitnessGram program.

“This is a long-standing issue that has been growing over the years,” said Rep. Haddon of Greenville.

The FitnessGram test, taken by students in second, fifth, and eighth grades, as well as high schoolers in nearly half of the state’s public schools, reveals a declining level of childhood fitness. Russell Pate, who heads a research group at the University of South Carolina studying children’s physical activity, highlighted the concerning results.

According to the most recent report, during the 2022-23 school year, 54% of children received unfavorable scores on cardiorespiratory tests involving running a mile and sprinting. When tested for upper body strength through pushups, 44% of students required improvement. Pate stressed that these findings indicate a “critical public health issue.”

Not having enough time to play outside prevents children from developing vital play skills, explained David Stodden, an educational and developmental science professor at USC. Stodden showed lawmakers a photo of a playground, emphasizing that not utilizing such spaces deprives children of valuable social interactions. He also noted that exercise enhances the brain functions necessary for learning other skills such as reading and math.

Patrick Kelly, a lobbyist for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, speaks during a subcommittee meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Kelly raised concerns about a bill that would expand physical education requirements for middle schoolers. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

However, the proposed legislation could potentially burden schools and teachers who are already overwhelmed, said Patrick Kelly, a lobbyist for the Palmetto State Teachers’ Association. Kelly pointed out that schools are struggling to hire enough teachers in all subjects, including physical education. He further emphasized that the additional 30 hours of physical education mandated for middle schoolers would take away valuable time from other core subjects such as math, reading, science, and social studies.

“The legislation aims to allocate the most valuable and limited resource we have in our schools, which is our time with students,” said Kelly, who is also a high school history teacher in Columbia.

Kelly suggested that providing more flexibility to schools struggling to meet these requirements would be beneficial. Although the panel of legislators did not vote on Tuesday, they generally agreed that they did not want to further burden teachers.

“The last thing we want is to implement something with time requirements and not have the necessary structure and personnel to actually make it happen,” said Rep. David Vaughan of Simpsonville.

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