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Move on school wellness rules

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Hawaii’s schoolchildren are among the nation’s leanest, but obesity is a growing concern that needs strict application of rules scheduled to take effect at the end of the current school year. Most public schools need to muster the willpower to more actively halt the presence of sugary drinks and high-fat foods while significantly increasing physical education.

Parents are largely responsible for their children’s health, but schools play an important role by engaging them in good habits of eating and exercise. The state Board of Education approved wellness guidelines four years ago but adherence has yet to be required; a new progress report with an eye toward May compliance, though, gave schools an overall "D-" grade.

Disappointing.

About 28 percent of Hawaii’s high school students are overweight, compared with 32 percent nationally. Among children aged 10 to 17, 11.2 percent were obese, one of the lowest percentages in the country. Still, according to a study last year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Hawaii high school obesity rose from 10.5 percent of students in 1999 to 14.5 percent.

The new wellness rules will ban the sale or distribution of food and beverages with sugar as the first ingredient or with more than 200 calories per serving or at least 8 grams of fat. Soda vending machines have been removed from Hawaii’s high schools, but only two of the state’s 224 public schools reported that they already have engaged in a total ban.

The rules call for physical education classes lasting 55 minutes weekly for fourth- and fifth-graders and 200 minutes a week for grades 6-12. In past years, alas, no P.E. has been required of sixth- through 12th-graders — a key ingredient in ranking Hawaii among the 11th worst states in meeting requirements recommended by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education. The association calls for 150 minutes of P.E. weekly for elementary schoolchildren and 225 minutes at middle schools.

Federal guidelines call for an hour of moderate or vigorous activity for high school students during each school day, but most Hawaii public high schools have decided to put that off and give priority to the federal No Child Left Behind academic standards.

Only 35 percent of the schools surveyed have abided by the new standards, modest as they are.

Increasingly sedentary lifestyles have added to the obesity problem. A survey last year showed that 40 percent of public middle school children and 31 percent of high school students spend at least three hours on school nights watching television or consumed by video games or computers.

Hawaii has an edge over other states because of the year-round climate conducive to exercise. Taking advantage, 93 percent of the state’s public schools now offer at least 20 minutes of recess daily, encouraging moderate to vigorous physical activity, in compliance with one of the rules. That’s a bright spot from which to start.

The guidelines, which also include health education classes from kindergarten through high school, are long overdue. They should be watchdogged aggressively by new "wellness committees" to be required at every school.

For students, some of their most valuable lessons will extend well beyond the campus, long after graduation and are just as profound as the scholarly pursuits — and becoming a well-rounded person via healthy habits does not include obesity.

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