Picard Center: most La. students can't 'sit up'

by Leslie Turk

Only one in three Louisiana students meet minimum fitness standards on an aerobic test, and even fewer pass a sit-up test.

The Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning on UL's campus Thursday released another damning report on the physical fitness of the state's school children. Approximately one in three Louisiana schoolchildren meet minimum fitness standards on an aerobic capacity fitness test, and even fewer can pass a curl-up or sit-up test, which measures muscle strength and endurance.

The report was submitted to the state Legislature in September as a requirement of Act 256 passed in 2009. "State Agencies and Universities Working Together to Impact Childhood Obesity in Louisiana" is a collaborative effort between the Picard Center, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and the Louisiana Department of Education. The act encourages school districts to conduct fitness assessments and share results with the Picard Center, which then compiles the data and reports results at the state, district, and school level. Similar reports on the status of children's physical health were submitted to the Legislature in 2009 and 2010.

More than 100,000 students from approximately 300 schools and 18 districts across Louisiana participated in physical fitness assessments to measure student health in the 2010-11 school year. (Of this sample, more than 78,000 records were used in the statewide data analysis.)

"This is a 400 percent increase in the number of students who are participating," said Dr. Joan Landry, physical education research project director. "The Picard Center relies on a generous donation from the Special Children's Foundation to fund many of the fitness assessment activities."

For the 2010-11 school year, the Picard Center purchased a special fitness assessment reporting software for districts to use, in an effort to increase the efficiency of data collection and analysis. "The purchase of the software allowed our schools to capture more student data and gave our teachers immediate analysis of student-level data," noted Alex "Manny" Barocco, director of athletics, physical education, and health for Jefferson Parish Schools.

Students participated in five fitness subtests, each measuring a different quality of fitness, such as aerobic capacity, and muscle strength, endurance and flexibility. Additionally, Body Mass Index data was gathered from students, which is a measurement of a student's weight in relation to their height and serves as an indicator of an individual's risk for certain health-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

The study also found:

44 percent of students in Louisiana have unhealthy BMIs, which is comprised of overweight, obese, or underweight.

More than one in five students (22 percent) are classified as obese by their BMI scores.

Only 36 percent of the students who participated in the shuttle run subtest (cardiovascular endurance measure) meet the minimum fitness standard for cardiovascular fitness for their age and gender.

Even fewer students, approximately one in four, meet the minimum fitness standard for the sit-up and push-up, which measures muscular strength and endurance.

Preliminary analysis suggests that, in general, students who have higher fitness scores also have higher academic scores on LEAP and iLEAP standardized tests.

In the upcoming months, researchers will conduct additional analysis on the relationship of student health to academic and behavioral outcomes. The study will provide preliminary answers to the question: "Does a healthy student perform better academically and have less behavior incidences?"

Said Dr. Billy Stokes, executive director of the Picard Center: "After three years of presenting data to the state Legislature, I am extremely interested in seeing public policy actions as a response to the recommendations. ... It is our hope that we continue to expand this data so Louisiana is one of the only states with 100 percent surveillance of children's fitness levels to be a leader in finding solutions to the national obesity epidemic."

Read the Picard Center's full report here.