College physical activity expert shares research with Oregon State Senate

Kathy Gunter testifies in support of physical education requirement bill

Kathy Gunter

CPHHS Associate Professor and Extension Specialist Kathy Gunter

It was a whirlwind week for College of Public Health and Human Sciences Associate Professor and Extension Specialist Kathy Gunter. But the physical activity expert walked out of the experience knowing that she and her colleagues made an impact on key stakeholders involved with House Bill 3141.

Senate President Peter Courtney sponsored the bill back in 2007, which mandates the amount of physical education programming required for elementary and middle school students. The amount of weekly minutes – 150 for elementary students and 225 for middle school students – are consistent with best practice recommendations. The bill also includes quality components, stating that at least 50 percent of the time should be spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

Oregon’s measure came with a 10-year window for schools to increase the amount of time their students engage in physical activity in school. Kathy and colleagues in CPHHS Extension took a critical look at the amount of MVPA elementary students in Oregon currently receive as a component of the United States Department of Agriculture funded GROW Healthy Kids & Communities Childhood Obesity Prevention Project.

“None of the schools we studied are meeting the minimum amount of physical education programing required by the bill,” she says. “The average amount of MVPA students are currently receiving is 19 minutes each day, and that is coming from all physical activity opportunities across the school day such as recess, classroom activity breaks, physical education, etc.”

Back-to-back presentations

Kathy presented her research in front of the Senate Committee on Health Care on Sept. 21. The presentation came just a day after she and Craig Gunderson, from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, spoke to policymakers as part of the 2016 Oregon Family Impact Seminar. The annual meeting, led by the college’s Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families, informs legislators on the science behind a topic they are interested in learning more about.

This year’s subject was addressing childhood obesity, which is directly correlated to HB 3141. Part of the bill addresses optimizing physical education in schools to offset the rise in childhood obesity. The research that Kathy and colleagues are conducting in rural elementary schools in Oregon shows that in Spring 2013, 10.94 percent of kindergarten students and 24.11 percent of sixth graders were obese.

Her presentation revealed nothing but positive impacts when children engage in regular physical activity ­– healthy weight and decreased risk for obesity, lower rates of diabetes and heart disease, strong bones, and reduced anxiety and depression. Academic performance, including performing better on tests and a reduction of inappropriate behaviors, are also benefits.

Recommendations for how to increase the amount of physical activity children receive before, after and during school include:

  • Physical education
  • Active recess time
  • Active transportation options
  • After-school programs
  • Classroom-based physical activity (such as the Balanced Energy Activity Toolkit)

Kathy says the current challenge of HB 3141 is its implementation when the bill become law next school year. There is no language in the bill regarding what will happen if schools do not comply. There are also logistical concerns, including overcrowded classrooms, too few physical education specialists and lack of funding.

A meaningful journey has begun 

Although she was nervous walking into the committee hearing, Kathy left the room knowing she’d made an impact through her work.

“It’s not often we’re presented the opportunity to present the work we do outside the walls of our institution,” she says. “When you’re able to inform policymakers who have the power to make decisions that have broad health impacts, you have brief moment where you understand that the work you’re doing matters.”

The Senate president asked one of his aids to convene focus groups consisting of administrators and educators to gain a better sense of the needs and the gaps in the bill.

Kathy is currently working with a team of researchers, which includes two pedagogy specialists and physical activity specialists. The team is currently working on revisions to a National Institutes of Health grant that evaluates HB 3141 and provides information about some of the factors hindering schools’ ability to implement the time requirements.

The District of Columbia is the only other place in the country with such rigorous physical education requirements for students. A handful of other states have requirements, but none that meet best practice recommendations.

“If Oregon implements this measure successfully, we will be leading the nation,” Kathy says. “More importantly, we would be teaching children essential motor skills that come with physical education, enabling them to become self-efficacious physically active adolescents and adults.”