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Not your grandmother's gym class

By Dorene Internicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Physical education in the United States has come a long way since the one-size-fits-all regimen of jumping jacks and rope climbing that was the bane of the baby boomer generation.

Today, where children learn can determine the type of fitness lessons they receive.

"We have schools with rock climbing walls, Zumba classes, inline skating - amazing stuff that I would have loved to have when I was a kid," said Carly Braxton, senior program manager for advocacy at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), a nonprofit group that promotes physical activity and education.

Even in schools constrained by local budgets or indifference, Braxton said, imaginative physical education teachers are finding innovative ways to get kids moving, from snow shoeing in cold climates to treasure hunting in warm ones.

"Where there's a big Native American population, they'll bring in tribal games, hunting and fishing," said Braxton, whose organization is one of the managing partners of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Active Schools program.

"Physical education people are among the most flexible people in the world when it comes to using the community and the environment," she added.

Federal guidelines recommend children and adolescents, aged 6-17 years old, get at least one hour of physical activity daily, but in the schools where they spend much of their day, mandates for movement vary greatly.

Thirty-eight U.S. states mandate physical education in elementary, middle/high and high school, according to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA, which is released by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and the American Heart Association.

But most states do not require a specific amount of instructional time and more than half allow exemptions, waivers, and/or substitutions, the report showed.

"Education is such a local issue," said Braxton. "You see this variation. Even in states with stricter mandates, these mandates don't have a whole lot of teeth."

Physical inactivity is associated with obesity, which affects 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States - triple the rate from just one generation ago, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Braxton said physical activity translates to lower absenteeism and higher academic performance.

"Research shows if you're sitting for more than 17 minutes, your brain activity starts to slow down," said Braxton. "If you're sitting in a math class, even just a one-minute brain break, where maybe the kids play rock/paper/scissors with their legs instead of their hands (can help)."

Dr. Jacalyn Lea Lund, professor at the Georgia State University and past president of NASPE, believes physical education is undervalued in classrooms increasingly driven by testing.

"Our kids get squirmy and stressed out. We know activity can relieve a lot of stress," Lund said.

"There's a really good program called Take 10, where children take little activity breaks to do anything from dance to music to throwing bean bags at targets," she said. "People found it makes a huge difference."

Jessica Matthews, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, a non-profit group that educates people about fitness, applauds teacher-initiated activity breaks, as well as the introduction of cutting edge programs such as yoga and martial arts, to local school districts.

She said physical activity and physical education are not interchangeable.

"Both are important," said Matthews, an exercise physiologist and former teacher.

With physical education, she said, children refine their motor skills, acquire specific abilities and set a foundation for lifelong fitness.

"The physical education teacher does more than just have kids run around the gym," she said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Sandra Maler)

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