I am lucky to have just returned from Sochi, Russia, where, along with 230 other Americans, I competed in the Olympic Games. Sochi was the third time I represented the United States in the Olympics, and I am proud of my accomplishments and the work I did to get there. But I did not get there on my own.
From a young age I was driven by physical accomplishments, not just from within but with the motivation of teachers and coaches who helped me achieve more than I believed myself capable of. I particularly remember my physical education coach, Mr. Harrington, as a source of inspiration. He instilled in us a love for exercise not only as an outlet for competition, but also for self-improvement and building confidence.
During each grade of elementary school, I looked forward to the 1-mile run more than anything else as a chance to showcase the physical fitness I had gained. During one particular year I was ready to sit out the 1-mile run because of a knee surgery until Mr. Harrington taught me an even more important life lesson. He explained to me that competition wasn’t always about winning, but doing your best on that particular day, and he cheered me on as I used crutches to make my way around the course. The mindset and confidence that was taught to me that day has helped carry me on to a career as an Olympic athlete.
Right now in Vermont, kids face tougher challenges. Physical education classes have been cut back. Nearly 27 percent of Vermont children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese. Kids are less and less physically active than ever before, with every distraction available to them. And 29 percent of students report playing video or computer games for three or more hours per day.
We need to make physical activity a priority for kids. Right now, Vermont elementary and middle schools are required to provide physical education only twice a week, and there is no minimum time required. Only 40 percent of our high school students attend at least one physical education class a week. This pales in comparison to the national guidelines of at least 30 minutes of physical education a day for middle school and 45 for high school. Our kids need greater access to recreational opportunities inside and outside of school. Not only can this improve their physical well-being, but it is shown that physical activity and cardiovascular fitness can improve cognitive function and even improve performance on standardized tests.
Vermont legislators have an opportunity to improve physical education time in schools and provide limited liability to schools so they can open their doors to recreation during nonschool hours. Research shows that people who are able to easily access recreational facilities exercise 38 percent more than those without easy access. Let’s make it easier for our kids to feel good and learn better. Let’s make sure this generation has the opportunity to learn how active play outside can be so much more fulfilling and more fun than TV or video games.
The confidence children can get from being more physically active can help push them farther than they thought possible — they may even be the next Olympian.
Andy Newell is a three-time Olympic cross-country skier from Shaftsbury.MORE IN Commentary
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