Hey, super-achiever, you need more exercise, not another AP class

Young runners in Miami Shores during a 2013 event. In Florida, many high schoolers can take “virtual” physical education classes that rely on the honor system, raising questions if many are really working up much of a sweat.
Young runners in Miami Shores during a 2013 event. In Florida, many high schoolers can take “virtual” physical education classes that rely on the honor system, raising questions if many are really working up much of a sweat. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

When it comes to stress, one of the simplest but most effective ways to manage it may be what parents have been telling their kids for years: Go outside to blow off a little steam.

But some high school kids in Florida skip out on this daily form of release, fulfilling their physical education requirement with an online option in order to pack their schedules with, yes, more classes.

That might not be the smartest choice.

"When you engage in physical activity, the increased blood flow to the brain improves your ability to adapt to stressful situations," said Scott Brown, a psychologist and assistant professor in University of Miami’s public health department. He said exercise also increases levels of the body's naturally-occurring opioids (the stuff that produces what’s often called a "runner's high") and helps reduce muscle tension. Of importance for students, exercise also facilitates the faster firing of neurons in the brain, which in turn improves learning, mood, and the brain’s ability to deal efficiently with stressful environments.

For younger kids in Florida, daily activity is a required part of their school day. Elementary school students are required to get 150 minutes of physical education per week. The only other subject that has such a required time allotment for young students is reading. And middle school students are required to take one semester of physical education per year.

But high school students operate on a credit system, which they can fulfill by taking an online physical education course offered by a virtual school.

As explained by a state education spokesperson, most school districts either work with their own virtual franchise or contract with a state-approved virtual provider. While online schools are legally required to teach the same material as in-person gym classes and assess their students, it is entirely up to these private entities to ensure the kids are actually doing the work.

Are kids really doing the jumping jacks they tell virtual instructors they’re doing? Hard to say.

The state doesn’t keep even track how many kids opt for virtual phys ed vs. the kind the requires you show up in school gym or on the field.

Florida Department of Education spokesperson Cheryl Etters said in an email that school districts do not report the data to the state. Jayne Greenberg, director of physical education for Miami-Dade county public schools, said that the district doesn’t track online enrollment numbers, leaving that to the virtual schools. She said that more than 87,500 Miami-Dade students take in-person physical classes. There are more than 355,000 kids in public schools in Miami-Dade, with 64,000 of those in charter schools.

Greenberg said the online phys ed serves the needs students who want the flexibility to fit more academic options into their schedule: AP classes, additional math or science classes, and classes for various magnet programs.

Miami-Dade has made efforts to make its real world phys ed classes more enticing, adding a variety of options more fun than jumping jacks.

There is a learn to swim program for middle schoolers and up that includes a water sports component such as sailing, kayaking or snorkeling. There is a new “geocaching” unit for middle schoolers that resembles a scavenger hunt in public parks with various fitness challenges along the way. There are “wellness centers” in all but three middle- and high-schools that have a mix of traditional fitness equipment like treadmills and outside-the-box offerings like Dance Dance Revolution.

Outside of schools, parents can play an active role in motivating their kids to stay active, said Dr. Brandon Korman, head of neuropsychology at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami.

“Don’t think of exercise as punitive,” he said. “It has to be something fun. Let kids choose what they’re interested in.”

Parents should keep in mind what motivates their child. Do they like to be part of a team? Do they prefer something solo like martial arts? Do they love spending outdoors time with the family pet?

“It doesn’t have to be intensive,” he adds. “Moderate exercise is better [than extreme exertion] for reducing stress.”

There are some challenges for South Florida kids. Brown points to development that has encouraged cars and discouraged walking and biking. Then there is the more universal obstacle of the internet, which begins to consume more and more as child ages into a teenager, a factor that probably contributes to Miami-Dade’s childhood obesity rate of 30 percent. Parents also have increased safety concerns, no longer as likely to tell kids to go play outside.

Korman said that in the past five years or so, he has seen a large increase in the number of children coming to his practice who lead mostly sedentary lives. For kids who already struggle with stress, that can add to the problems.

“Some children are more predisposed to anxiety than others,” he says. “Exercise allows them to disconnect for a bit.”

Play time help

One local, affordable exercise option for kids: The Miami-Dade Parks Department’s “Fit 2 Play” program, which offers after-school fitness programming and homework help. Financial aid is available for qualifying families.