Many Tarrant County students don't measure up on fitness tests

Only about 1 in 4 Tarrant County students is considered physically fit, and many out-of-shape students come from poor school districts, a trend that concerns education and health officials.

The results are based on the state's annual Fitnessgram tests, which measure flexibility, body mass index and performance of exercises such as running, pushups and sit-ups. Of the 205,453 Tarrant County students who took the test, 26.3 percent were considered in the "healthy fitness zone" in all parts.

Statewide, about 2.9 million students participated in the tests, and about a third were considered fit. Students in third through eighth grades improved, while high school students continued to lag behind.

Health officials say they continue to see an increase in childhood obesity and related illnesses.

"It's almost like the clock is ticking," said Brian Richard, a dietitian at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. "If we can't reverse this trend, then we know other health issues are coming, one of them being diabetes."

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, pushed for the legislation that created the tests.

"The improvements for our younger students are encouraging, but overall fewer than a third of Texas students recorded overall physical fitness," Nelson said in a news release. "The high school results are alarming and show why this is a bad time to be cutting P.E. requirements."

Legislation passed last session increased physical education in elementary schools but reduced the high school requirement from three semesters to two.

As the Fitnessgram is given in physical education classes, not every student is required to be assessed. And some worry that by high school, test fatigue prevents some students from taking the Fitnessgram seriously.

Julie Harris-Lawrence, who, as deputy associate commissioner for the Texas Education Association, oversees the Fitnessgram, said officials are working to get a better buy-in from all students next year. Efforts will include a social media campaign on sites like Facebook and a YouTube contests where students can create fitness videos.

"I want to make sure we get as much data from high school kids, and good data," she said. "But we know from looking at the snapshot of data from these high schools kids that the older they get, the more sedentary they become. We have to get them more active early on."

A clear link

Locally, the districts that did the best -- Carroll, Northwest and Grapevine-Colleyville -- had among the lowest percentage of students classified as economically disadvantaged. Those with some of the lowest fitness levels -- Everman, Castleberry and Fort Worth -- had the most such students.

Harris-Lawrence said that mirrors state results in each of the three years that the tests were given.

"Does that mean that those students [of higher socio-economic status] have more physical activity outside of school or access to better nutrition?" she said. "We don't have a causal link yet, but we clearly, clearly see a link in the data."

Georgi Roberts, Fort Worth's director of health and physical education and a member of the Fitnessgram advisory board, said there is a complex relationship among socio-economics, health and academics.

For example, Roberts said, the district is aggressively trying to increase health awareness and fitness. Officials encourage neighborhood Walking School Bus programs to persuade more students to walk to school and teach them better eating habits, she said.

"But where do you not have sidewalks? On the south side and other neighborhoods that tend to be poorer," Roberts said. "How many grocery stores do you have on the east side with access to fresh fruits and vegetables? ... And the more physically active and fit students are, the better they will perform academically."

The data frustrate Dr. John Menchaca, a pediatrician who works with many inner-city families. He said he has seen a dramatic increase in obesity in his patients, particularly among infants. He said parents need to be better-educated and more active in overseeing their children's health.

"So many will say, 'Well, my grandmother had diabetes, and maybe my child will or won't have it' rather than say, 'OK, if we work vigorously now, then we'll prevent it,'" he said. "It's disappointing."

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700