Competition Is Eschewed in New Fitness Initiatives

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The New York Sun

Farewell, tag and dodge ball. Hello, pilates and African dance.

As city officials roll out initiatives to help the Big Apple’s youngest slim down, the activities they’re picking are increasingly discouraging competition. Health advocates say their goal is to encourage life-long fitness in a city where one in five kindergarteners is obese and more than half of adults are overweight.

This new focus means the exercises that grown-ups recall – with varying degrees of nostalgia – barely resemble what’s done in today’s gym classes.

Dodgeball, perhaps the most iconic example of yesteryear’s gym class, is now frowned upon in the city school system because the game requires players to be human targets. While the city doesn’t ban the game, as do some school districts around the country, other elimination games such as tag also are eschewed.

“Just imagine how a student feels, consistently being the first one out in a game of tag,” the Department of Education’s director of fitness and physical education, Lori Benson, said, referring to out-of-shape and overweight students.

Some say dodgeball and similar games can be beneficial.

A professor of physical education at North Dakota State University, Brad Strand, published a study showing that dodgeball participants’ heart rates stayed moderate longer than during other team games, according to an essay by Matt Labash in the Weekly Standard ridiculing the anti-competitive movement.

Students in modern gym classes do things like cycle, rollerblade, and dance, Ms. Benson said.

During testimony in June before a City Council committee, an assistant heath commissioner, Dr. Lynn Silver, outlined the benefits of “noncompetitive” city exercise programs, such as the universal participation by children.

Officials note that competitive sports are still available before and after school and through leagues, but for more than a decade schools nationwide have been trying to shed the gym class stereotype. Gotham’s move away from “military-style” gym has accelerated since Ms. Benson assumed the post in 2003.

“We’re focusing on activities that students can do beyond the school day,” Ms. Benson said, naming activities such as pilates and African dance.

Her office now discourages gym teachers from running traditional five-on-five basketball games where the other class members become benchwarmers. Instead, Ms. Benson said, in class activities should allow for at least 50% of students to be vigorously exercising at a given time.

Even when city school students do play basketball, Ms. Benson said, her office encourages lessons about things like monitoring and calculating their heart rates.

The trend toward individual fitness is evident with the city’s new fitness report cards, unveiled in June by the school chancellor and distributed to more than 235,000 children. City officials went out of their way to say the individual report cards do not compare students, instead evaluating whether a student is in a “healthy fitness zone” or “needs improvement.”

“I have nothing against athleticism, nothing against speed and power, and athletics are important to a huge segment of our society,” the president and CEO of the Cooper Institute, which pioneered the report cards, Steven Blair, said. “But it’s the health effects of regular activity that interest me and affect more people,” the 67-year-old self-described fat man said.

New-age physical education philosophy might not be the only factor pushing schools to abandon competitive, risky games like dodgeball.

Several years ago the parents of a second-grader sued an upstate school district near Binghamton after their daughter fractured her arm during a class dodgeball game.

The litigation prompted the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance to warn: “If you are using dodgeball, beware!”

Still, a bit of competition might always have a home in physical education.

When students at Chinatown’s P.S. 1 recently demonstrated a hamstring muscle flexibility test that appears on their fitness report cards only to measure individual achievement, a teacher finished the exercise with some old school encouragement.

“First place,” he said as the top performers cheered, “second place, third place.”

The New York Sun

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