Can Movement Serve as an Antidote to Health Disparities?

Young yogi woman standing in Plank pose, home interior backgroun
Photo by Fizkes/iStock.

Just like his classmates, Cody Soca, 11, started Franklin Classical Middle School in Long Beach online this fall. 

Cody, who is in sixth grade, likes his teachers and virtual school, but he’s looking forward to having normal physical education classes and outdoor recess once in-person instruction resumes. There isn’t a lot of room or exercise gear in the small apartment Cody shares with his mother, stepfather and younger brother, which makes staying fit difficult.

While physical education might seem a low-level concern as educators grapple with helping kids keep up with math and reading during the pandemic, health experts worry that the loss of access to exercise at school could widen health disparities among students. 

Health disparities often stem from a lack of access to nutritious food, outdoor space and health care, among other resources. As a result of these societal inequities, low-income communities and communities of color often see higher rates of health issues, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. COVID-19 has shown how disparities can contribute to health outcomes.

Some teachers and schools in California, including Franklin Classical Middle School, have sought ways to encourage students to remain physically active despite the difficulties imposed by the pandemic. At Cody’s school, an initiative organized by UCLA Health’s Sound Body Sound Mind program has distributed sports equipment kits to students that include a ball, jump rope, water bottle, frisbee, resistance band and yoga mat. 

The equipment has made it easier for Cody to get moving, even inside his apartment. “Before (when) we did yoga online, as part of our gym class, my floor was all bumpy, but now it’s smooth,” he said. 

Cody Soca uses the exercise equipment provide by a UCLA program that aims to help kids stay active, even when school is online.

The UCLA program aims to promote self-confidence and healthy lifestyle choices in Los Angeles communities that see higher rates of health disparities. Pre-pandemic, the program provided fitness programs in middle and high schools, including fitness centers and teacher training.

California has waived the minimum weekly minutes requirement for physical education at public schools during COVID-19, but still requires physical education instruction. Educators across the state have been working to come up with creative ideas to keep kids active.

One challenge, said Matt Flesock, executive director at Sound Body Sound Mind, is that many schools lack funding to provide exercise equipment to students in their homes. To pay for the exercise kits, his program partnered with community organizations including the Lakers Youth Foundation, the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation, and Beyond the Bell, an after-school and summer program of the LA Unified School District. 

They distributed the kits to about 4,000 students, most of whom are in middle school. The program handed out the kits at “Grab and Go” meal distributions held by schools with high rates of children getting free and reduced meals. The rate at Cody’s school is 92 percent.   

Priya Soni, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Cedars Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, said kids from low-income families are often less physically fit than their wealthier counterparts because of equipment and space limitations at home and, often, inadequate physical education facilities at their schools. 

“Now distance learning is a huge limitation to physical activity because many of these children who are now confined to home and living in urban settings have even more limited access to open spaces for play,” Soni said. 

A 2018 study from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health based on 2014 data (the latest available) found that less than a third of children ages 5 to 11, engaged in at least an hour of physical activity every day, as recommended by public health guidelines. Only a fifth of youth ages 12 to 17 met the recommendation level of activity. 

Experts are quick to point out the mental health benefits of maintaining physical activity during COVID-19. Michelle Carter, director of educational content and programs at the Society of Health and Physical Educators, has been creating COVID-19 related resources, such as online physical education lesson plans and age-appropriate at-home workouts for teachers. Some of the resources have prompted kids to talk with their teachers about how the pandemic is making them feel, she said.

“Physical activity is a great outlet to relieve stress, bond with family, obviously stay healthy, and exert energy,” Carter said. “Kids went to school one day and the next day they weren’t (there) anymore. Not being able to see friends or teachers, limiting how and where they can play — it’s been a lot for kids.” 

Flesock said he’s also hearing from teachers and students about high levels of stress, especially among those in low-income households who are suffering from job loss and food insecurity.

“There’s a lot of stress and anxiety and increased depression during this time, and physical activity has been shown to help with those,” Flesock said.

Paige Metz, health and physical education coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education, one of only four county physical education coordinators in the state, said instructors there are using the pandemic as an opportunity to teach kids about “physical literacy” or why being active is so important. 

“Every district is doing the best they can, including encouraging kids to use items at home for exercise such as bags of beans for weights,” Metz said. 

Other districts have found funding for exercise kits like those distributed by UCLA and still others, especially smaller schools, are sometimes lending out school exercise equipment for use at home, Metz added.  

Dennis Gildehaus, a middle and high school physical education teacher in San Diego said that while his lessons have become “much more academic” during distance learning, he plans to integrate the fitness concepts he’s teaching online when students are back in the building.

At the beginning of the school year, Karla Martinez, the physical and health educator at Roosevelt International Middle School in San Diego, sent a survey to parents to find out what items they had at home so she could plan activities to do during online school. She now routinely has kids substitute food cans for weights, rolled up socks for balls, and cardboard for frisbees. 

The UCLA program is now preparing for kids’ eventual return to in-person classes and doesn’t plan to continue distributing kits for now. But Flesock said he hopes kit program and other innovative ideas devised by schools and teachers during the pandemic will empower students to pursue physical fitness, even when circumstances are less-then-ideal.

Roselli Soca, Cody’s mom, who works as a restaurant server, says the kit has made the difference between Cody getting exercise on weekdays and not. 

“I only get to take the boys to the park on weekends, so having the exercise items in the kit means Cody gets exercise and has some fun, even if when he’s not going outside to play,” she said.

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