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Bill would require students to exercise 30 minutes a day

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By Whitney Burdette
Charleston Daily Mail Staff

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Senate is considering a bill that would require all West Virginia students to participate in at least 30 minutes of physical activity at school each day.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley introduced the proposal, dubbed the Move to Improve Act.

He said Move to Improve is the second piece of Feed to Achieve, an initiative passed by the Legislature last year to make nutritious breakfasts available to all school children regardless of socioeconomic status.

"This (Move to Improve) deals with physical activity and trying to address the childhood obesity issues," Unger said.

"There is research that shows the direct correlation between physical activity and good nutrition and student achievement," he said. "Working with a number of people, including Gayle Manchin, president of the state Board of Education, and others, this legislation will address that by increasing physical activity during the school day and integrating it with learning."

Unger's proposal, Senate Bill 455, was taken up by the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee Thursday afternoon. Although committee members passed the bill unanimously, some had questions about the feasibility of mandating 30 minutes of daily physical activity.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, asked if other subjects, such as music, art or history, are required to be taught a minimum length of time during the typical school day. Education Committee Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said they are not.

"We've tried to take out the requirement of minutes in the day and things like that," Plymale said, noting he's not sure if other such requirements exist in statute.

The idea of recess also was brought up. Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, pointed out winter weather often limits the amount of time, if any, children can spend outdoors.

Under the proposal, recess would qualify as meeting that 30-minute threshold. But Palumbo took that a step farther and asked about kids who refuse to participate in recess.

Dr. Emily Murphy from the WVU Extension Service said the state school board would work to train teachers to motivate those children.

"This bill works with the state Board of Education to provide future training for physical education teachers to go back to their schools and train classroom teachers to better engage students during that time," Murphy said. "You can't force a child to get up and move, but we would teach the teachers how to motivate them."

The committee's staff attorney said if weather events prevent students from enjoying outdoor recess, things like dance classes, volleyball or relay races would suffice.

"It's not just you have class and learning and then you have physical activity," Unger said. "The idea is to look at innovative ways to integrate both. Research shows as a child's body is moving, his mind is moving. There is a direct connection between the two. This piece of legislation addresses those two."

Unger said he's seen dramatic increases in the number of students who are offered healthy breakfasts at schools since the Feed to Achieve Act passed last year. He's hoping Move to Improve will see the same success.

"The idea is to instill in our young people, our students, in elementary school and middle school, the value of physical activity and good nutrition," Unger said. "Research shows that by having those two components, students achieve. They're ready to learn, they're more receptive, also they grow in the sense they have a healthier environment where they grow into healthier adults. That's what we're trying to do is instill in those elementary and middle school students the value of physical activity and good nutrition."

The legislation focuses on moderate to vigorous activity, which Murphy said can be gauged a variety of ways, including measuring heart rate or just making sure the kids are breathing hard and sweating.

"That's what we're looking for these kids to do and sustain that for a period of time that will result in health benefits," Murphy said.

Move to Improve passed through the Health Committee unanimously. Its next stop is the Senate Education Committee.