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“Across the country, PE has borne more than its share of budget cuts. Our results make the case that this is shortsighted.”

AT THE NORTHSIDE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT IN SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, an obesity prevention program has increased physical activity and improved nutrition among elementary school students through an innovative physical education (PE) curriculum, special equipment, after-school programs and family involvement. As the program’s centerpiece the district adopted SPARK, a research-based curriculum that aims to make recess and PE less competitive and more fun. Traditional gym-class sports are replaced by the likes of yoga, Zumba, Frisbee golf, scarf juggling, and rock climbing on a portable climbing wall. Teachers receive guidance on ways to minimize idle time so that students remain actively engaged — another departure from traditional PE.

SPARK and similar programs have been implemented in varying forms all over the country. But even as these programs earn praise, proponents often find it hard to secure funding for enhanced physical education amid the realities of constrained budgets. So a team from the FSPH-based UCLA Center for Health Advancement has adopted a new approach designed to bridge academic studies of such programs with concrete results that can assist policymakers. Using data modeling techniques that start with the known effects of the program employed at Northside and factor in research on the impact of obesity in later life, the center’s researchers can estimate in concrete and realistic terms the long-term return another city or state can expect from its own investment in the program.

Framed that way, the results are eye opening. For the 130,000 elementary school children (30 percent of whom are obese) in 15 school districts in San Antonio and the surrounding area, investing in the Northside program would prevent 560 cases of diabetes and 800 cases of hypertension during adulthood. Moreover, enhanced physical education would lead to better academic performance — an additional 12 percent of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade children testing at proficient levels for reading and an additional 11 percent proficient in math. The $8 million, three-year investment would amount to $61 per child, but the FSPH research team estimates that 31 percent of that spending would be returned through lower future health costs for local and state governments.

The modeling effort, which has since been expanded to include Los Angeles, Philadelphia and the state of Arkansas, is headed by Dr. Frederick Zimmerman, co-director of the UCLA Center for Health Advancement, and includes three other Fielding School faculty members: Drs. Jonathan Fielding, the center’s founding co-director; Steven Teutsch, formerly the chief science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; and Brian Cole. Nathaniel Anderson, who will enter the FSPH Department of Health Policy and Management PhD program in the fall, serves as chief modeler, and Natalie Rhoads is the project manager.

“Across the country, PE has borne more than its share of budget cuts,” Zimmerman says. “Our results make the case that this is short-sighted. For an intervention that doesn’t cost a huge amount, there is a significant impact on test scores, to say nothing of the health benefits.”