Wealth Equals Health: Student Fitness Linked to Family Income

How fit is your child? The first way to tell may be to look at the family wealth of his or her classmates. While the rich get fitter, the poor lack the myriad resources that could improve their health and fitness.

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The Fitness Gap

In the 2011 Physical Fitness Test in California, 31% of public school students earned healthy scores on all six of the different areas of measurement. These include aerobic capacity, body composition, flexibility, upper body strength, abdominal strength and trunk strength. Yet those results were not equal across all schools. Students at suburban schools in wealthy areas, in general, performed much better than students in less wealthy areas.

As an example of the disparity, consider students at Sycamore Valley Elementary School in the wealthy Bay Area city of Danville. Of the fifth graders at Sycamore Valley, 83% received healthy scores on all six measurements. At Cesar Chavez Elementary School, in San Francisco's Mission district, none of the fifth graders achieved six healthy scores. While no student at Sycamore Valley qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch due to family income, over 85% of the students at Cesar Chavez do.

The Rich Get Fitter

There are numerous causes behind this disparity. For example, better-funded schools are more able to provide consistent access to high quality physical education to their students. This can mean having experienced physical education specialists on staff. It also can mean having the physical resources, including space and equipment, to provide physical education classes.

Schools in wealthier areas are also likely to have more engaged parents. Frankly, wealthier parents can afford to play a more active role in their children's education. This shows itself in several ways. These parents may hold fundraisers for new sports equipment or lobby for healthier snacks in the school. They can also afford to enroll their children in sports and other activities outside of school.

An Uneven Playing Field

While students in wealthier areas have a series of advantages, students in poorer neighborhoods have compounding problems. Their families are more likely to struggle financially. This means that less money gets donated to school fundraisers. It also means that their parents have less time to be involved in day-to-day school activities.

At Cesar Chavez, many students are the children of immigrants. Spanish may be their first language, which creates an additional barrier to success. A genuine worry for some of these students is that their parents could get deported for being in the country illegally. This adds anxiety and distraction that affect not only fitness, but also academic performance.

The Need for Physical Education

The need for fitness programs at school is strong. Numerous studies have shown a link between physical education classes and better overall health, including a reduction in obesity rates. While students in wealthy areas benefit from a plethora of fitness resources, their less fortunate peers suffer. Cuts in education spending only further this divide, since families with less money are less able to compensate for state funding shortfalls. While difficult times mean that cuts must be made, physical education should be viewed as essential, especially in areas where fitness levels would plummet without school-sponsored support.

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