Barbour calls for mandatory P.E. for K-8 Mississippi students

Published 6:23 pm Friday, September 29, 2006

Gov. Haley Barbour told educators Thursday that he’ll push a bill next year to require 30 minutes of daily physical activity for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“It is imperative for our students to understand that learning takes many forms and along with the academic we must also teach the benefits of physical well-being,” Barbour told school health, wellness and safety officials at a conference sponsored by the state Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools.

While physical education is required in elementary and middle school in Mississippi, the state does not mandate P.E. in high schools. The duration and frequency of the courses in younger grades also are not set by the state.

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A study released last month by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health listed Mississippi as the most obese state in the nation. The study said 29.5 percent of adult Mississippians are considered obese. Colorado was ranked as the leanest state; about 16.9 percent of its adults are considered obese.

Barbour on Thursday also said he’ll endorse a bill requiring K-8 students to complete 45 minutes a week of health education.

“We need to emphasize the value of learning to live healthy and how adopting good nutrition and exercise habits early in life can contribute to a longer and higher quality of life,” said Barbour, who hosted a Healthy Mississippi summit in June.

The governor, who often makes self-deprecating remarks about his own weight, has trimmed down the past few months with a regimen of diet and exercise.

Barbour called for a requirement that K-8 students complete an annual body mass index assessment, an indicator of whether people carry an appropriate amount of weight for their height. He said the legislation would give schools the freedom to customize their own programs.

In Arkansas — where Gov. Mike Huckabee has lost about 110 pounds since 2003 — schools have been measuring students’ body mass index for three years.

The percentage of Arkansas schoolchildren overweight or at risk of becoming overweight was 37.5 percent this year, down from 38.1 percent three years ago. The most recent canvass covered 371,082 of Arkansas’ 450,000 public school children, officials said this month.

Barbour on Thursday also repeated his proposal to expand the school nurse program. Now, more than 60 school nurses who work on tobacco prevention programs serve more than 50 school districts, and the governor wants to double that number and expand their mission to other health issues.

He proposed to pay for the expanded program with earnings from the state Health Care Trust Fund, which is funded by annual payments from Mississippi’s 1997 settlement of a massive lawsuit against cigarette makers.

“We instinctively know the importance of promoting healthier lifestyles — lower costs, more job creation, mental clarity and a longer and better quality of life,” Barbour said.