Although California students made slight gains in physical fitness this year, a report released Wednesday adds more fuel to arguments that children need to ditch the TV and video games in favor of more athletic pursuits.

The report shows that fewer than one-third of students in grades 5 and 7 met physical fitness goals last year.

Each year, the state tests students in six areas: aerobic capacity, abdominal strength, upper body strength, trunk strength, flexibility and body fat composition. The goal is for students to meet fitness standards in all six areas to prevent against diseases that can result from inactivity. "The simple fact is that healthy kids learn better," said Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, who launched a healthy kids initiative a few years ago to get students eating better and exercising more. "I'm pleased to see the slow shift toward better health continue, but when only about one-third of our students are physically fit, we are nowhere near the end of this effort.


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To help them succeed in school and in life, California's young people need more access to physical activity, fresh, healthy food, and clean water."

For example, to meet aerobic goals, a 5-foot-6-inch, 150-pound ninth-grade boy must run a mile within 9 minutes, do at least 16 push-ups and 24 sit-ups.

Scores for fifth-graders inched upward slightly from 25.4 percent reaching the goal in 2012 to 25.5 percent in 2013. Seventh-grade scores also rose, from 31.9 percent in 2012 to 32.4 percent, while ninth-grade scores stayed the same at 36.5 percent meeting goals in all categories.

A physical education class at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek, Calif., 2009.  (Mark DuFrene/Staff)
A physical education class at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek, Calif., 2009. (Mark DuFrene/Staff) ( MARK DuFRENE )

The state labels students who score poorly in aerobic capacity and body composition as "Needs improvement -- high risk." About 34 percent of fifth-graders, 30 percent of seventh-graders and 26 percent of ninth-graders fell into this category in body composition, indicating their fitness levels are not sufficient for good health.

Fitness results varied in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Fifth-graders scored above statewide averages for meeting goals in all six areas in the East Bay, while seventh-graders in Alameda County met the state average and those in Contra Costa County scored just below it. Ninth-graders in Alameda County scored just slightly below the state average, while freshmen in Contra Costa County were slightly above it. Students at all three grade levels in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties scored above the state average in meeting fitness goals in all six areas.

Milpitas High School in Santa Clara County offers a wide range of physical education courses that entice more students to continue taking them in their junior and senior years, said Principal Ken Schlaff. Nearly 40 percent of freshmen at the school scored in the "Healthy Fitness Zone" in all six areas, surpassing the state average.

Schlaff said the school plans to start a campaign encouraging more students to walk and bike to school. The school has also added a salad bar to its cafeteria and offers dance and yoga to make students aware of the need to live a healthy lifestyle.

"We're trying to take more of a holistic approach," he said. "It's not something we take lightly."

Students at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek scored about the same as seventh-graders throughout the state, with about 32 percent meeting all six fitness goals.

PE teacher Mark Hayes said the school encourages students to be active, but it's more difficult now than it used to be with competition from TV, computers and social media, which prompt students to sit around instead of going outside.

"We talk about the importance of increasing their heart rates to stay in better shape," he said. "Your body is like a car. If you don't take care of it, it will break down. And if you don't have your health, what good are you going to be?"

ONLINE
More information about the Team California for Healthy Kids campaign and school, district, county and state fitness test results are at www.cde.ca.gov. Click on "Physical Fitness Test Results."
To search an online database and see video of a Foothill Middle School teacher talking about fitness, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.