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Dodgeball on the Hill: Saving Physical Play | Commentary

It was 1970. I was in the fourth grade. And whenever Sister Mary Agnes was losing us during tough math lessons, she’d make us stand at our desks and do jumping jacks. It got our blood flowing, our brains working.

I can still see her now — standing at the chalkboard in full black-and-white habit, arms flapping, scapular bouncing, growing more red-faced with each jumping jack. One. Clap. Two. Clap. Three. Clap. She’d keep going until we reached 20.

To Sister Mary Agnes, those jumping jacks were a guaranteed energy burst. For the rest of us struggling to stay focused, they were the answer to our prayers.

Nobody had to tell Sister Mary Agnes how important physical activity was to growing children — to our ability to concentrate, to learn, to sit still and behave. She didn’t need publicly or privately funded studies to convince her. She just knew. And she made it her business to make it a part of our lives. Whether it was jumping jacks in the classroom, or jumping rope at recess in the church parking lot, Sister Mary Agnes made sure we moved.

When we weren’t in school, chances were we were moving, too. Growing up in Springfield, Mass., I lived in a neighborhood that would erupt into spontaneous games of Relievo. From 10 blocks around, there would be dozens of us running, twisting, turning, diving — whatever it took to capture our opponent, or escape.

Now, as an adult working in the health club industry — an industry that recognizes the dangers of physical inactivity and works to promote active, healthy lifestyles — I look back on those days with tremendous appreciation. Jumping over puddles; running across fields; climbing trees. Our minds were clear, our hearts light. We were free to move. It was play. And we loved it.

Everything we know tells us that exercise — movement — is critically important to growing children, adolescents and teens. We know that regular physical activity helps control weight; builds healthy bones, joints and muscles; mitigates stress, depression and anxiety; reduces the short- and long-term risk for numerous chronic diseases; enhances mood, energy and the ability to concentrate; helps with executive function and impulse control; reduces the likelihood of unhealthy, risky behaviors; helps develop social, emotional and cognitive skills; advances positive self-image and self-efficacy; positively correlates to academic success. The list goes on.

Yet regular physical activity — and especially physical play — has become a relic in our society. Sure, times have changed. Progress happened. But we’re at a juncture now where we absolutely must ensure that the benefits of progress are truly benefits and not burdens left for our kids.

Recently, the health and fitness industry carried the message to Capitol Hill, asking members of Congress for their help. We need it, because no matter how committed we are as parents or advocates of physical activity, we can’t do it alone. Our society has moved so far astray from a culture that inculcates physical activity — and physical play — into our daily lives that moving us back to “well” absolutely must be a collaborative effort. If our kids are to get the chance to be hard-playing, and to live active, healthy, happy, productive lives, we must work together, from all sectors of society.

So while each of us takes personal responsibility in our homes, in our schools and in our communities, here’s what Congress can do: Pass legislation and maintain programs that back active kids. Some examples? The Personal Health Investment Today Act, the Promoting Health as Youth Skills in Classrooms and Life Act and the Carol M. White Physical Education Program.

PHIT helps families keep their kids moving by allowing Americans to pay for sports equipment and physical fitness and sports programs with dollars from pre-tax accounts, such as flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts. The PHYSICAL Act rightly elevates PE to a “core subject” under federal law, increasing the odds that it won’t get cut. And PEP provides the only federal funding dedicated to quality physical education so more of our children can grow up enjoying the benefits of movement at school.

When I was a kid running around in my yard, I used to imagine what it would be like to fly — to soar freely. Now that I’m older, I realize I did. Movement — the joy of movement, the freedom of movement — is soaring. It’s a gift.

Congress: It’s time to nurture a culture and national environment where physical activity — physical play — is once again a way of life. We can’t do it without you. Let’s help this generation of kids — and the next, and all of those to come — to know, appreciate and live the joy of movement. It’s a gift too precious to squander. Let’s get moving.

Helen Durkin is the executive vice president of public policy at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

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