15 May 2009

Good Research Falls Victim to Poor Journalism (again)

A recent article by John Cloud of TIME Magazine is a prime example of another uninformed writer looking to make a splash with some selective journalism. As a future professional in the field related to the article, I had to take exception. Here goes…

Mr. Cloud seems to be making the argument that kids PE, well, it really doesn’t matter. In his article, he presumes that at the end of the day, kids will get all the “movement” they need to live a healthy lifestyle replete with low blood pressure, healthy weights, and positive body image. Oh, and that PE really doesn’t matter to our nation’s young people.

So, on what information does Mr. Cloud base his lofty assertions? Well, he apparently got some information from the European Congress of Obesity during a meeting last week in Amsterdam. In his article, he cites a study of “206 children ages 7 to 11 from three schools in and around Plymouth, on the southern coast of England.” Of the three schools, one is a private school for wealthy families, the others are a village school and an urban school. He used this study to compare the amount of actual daily physical movement (note I did not say physical activity) of the kids in each school. The study used accelerometers (a common device similar to a pedometer, but measures more than steps), which he scientifically referred to by their brand name, ActiGraphs, to measure daily physical activity for the kids. So, using the limited information in this study, Mr. Cloud makes the following statement:

The findings are remarkable: No matter how much P.E. they got during school hours, by the end of the day, the kids from the three schools had moved around about the same amount, at about the same intensity. The kids at the fancy private school underwent significantly more physical activity before 3 p.m. than the kids at the other two schools, but overall, when you look at entire days, they got no more activity.

Remarkable indeed. Remarkable in the fact that there is no distinction as to exactly WHAT type of movement the kids engaged in during or after school. Remarkable that in no way do 206 kids in coastal England represent millions of kids enrolled in PE across the US. Remarkable that in discussing intensity, well let's just say that it doesn’t lend itself to being drawn out over the course of a day. Aside from all that, remarkable that kids at these ages are sometimes predisposed to manipulating the devices when unsupervised. While I’m not saying that’s what happened, it is a possibility Mr. Cloud did not mention. Perhaps the authors did.

So, why do I bring this all up? Two reasons…

First, let me clearly state that in no way am I disparaging the research conducted. Without reading it firsthand (unlike, or possibly just like Mr. Cloud), it looks legitimate on the surface and I’m certain that the researchers were professional in their study and were well-intentioned in the objective. It is not an uncommon type of study and there have been many studies similar in nature. I do think that the age groups are not particularly representative to studying the true effects of physical activity on long term health. Kids in the age ranges are still growing and adapting to their bodies. True effects on health are not often known until later ages.

However, Mr. Cloud seems to think that this study of 206 kids on the southern tip of England is somehow representative of kids in the US who participate in PE. This would be like me stating that 200 kids from the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine who ran fast in a relay race means that all kids in England who participate in relay races also run very fast. And the ActiGraphs prove it!

Culture plays a big role in physical activity, especially in how/what kids are taught during the day, and moreso in what activities they engage in outside of school. In addition, finding a cohort of kids to study consistently in the US is challenging enough, which is why multiple studies are done to verify the phenomenon holds true across geographical regions as well as cultures within the US. Mr. Cloud's editors must have heard this point, and suggested he venture for more data…

Lo and behold, there’s more! Mr. Cloud goes on to bolster his assertions with what he describes as a “set-point” study, that much like climate change, clearly settles the “PE“ argument once and for all. He cites a SECOND study - this time of 47 kids near Exeter (England) - to support the first study! Now, this is better journalism per se', but the problem is the same. He has cherry-picked TWO articles that support his notions that PE is unnecessary. The press would never do something like that, would they?

So, I guess my doctoral studies are now obsolete, and my department and many like them at universities across the nation can be folded so money can be given to other departments like, um, I don’t know… JOURNALISM?!

The second reason is that Mr. Cloud is trained to regurgitate interesting, perhaps even useful information, but has no inclination as to how to consume professional research. If he were truly concerned about the issue, rather than writing a puff piece for sensationalizing it, he would have sought out at least a few more studies (perhaps ones using American kids – you know, the ones to which he so easily generalizes) to see if what he was citing was broadly supported – especially in the US. But, alas, that's the media here in the US. As Rush Limbaugh says, the “drive-by” media. Set-point, Mr. Cloud.

If it were as simple as Mr. Cloud's two-study theory presents, we would not have an epidemic of childhood obesity. The reality is that kids DON’T get enough physical activity. They get plenty of junk food and video games. CDC and ACSM standards have recently been revised and increased with respect to how much moderate to vigorous physical activity is deemed beneficial for health. If this article was the final arbiter, it's proven that PE doesn’t do anything positive for kids health and they can do it all on their own... you know, after school... in their spare time... when its convenient.

In the end, this is but one article that I happened upon. Is it wrong? The research? No. The article? In my opinion, it couldn’t be more wrong than if he wrote an article that said that all kids in England had perfect teeth. Okay, that may have been harsh, but it proves the point that the media has problems with intellectual honesty across all topics and the confirmatory nature that what is presented in the media is always factual. But again, as I continue to ask those of you who read this, always think critically and ask questions. Limited information helps few, but hurts many…


Sandy Ware said...

While I know I am not qualified to comment on the validity of research or the necessary requirements for physical activity in children, I am a mother of 2 who knows her children are not receiving appropriate PE in school. And when I say PE, that doesn't mean climbing monkey bars or playing tag in the gym, I mean what it stands for ... Physical EDUCATION. I am proud to say that I was fortunate to go to an elementary school that valued well-rounded education. We had PE 3 days a week and we were required to not only play the sports taught but we had to learn about the health, safety, and rules associated with that sport. And somehow I still managed to learn to read, add numbers, and draw pictures ... with honors I might add. Sarcasm asside however, my children are lucky to have PE once a week taught by overweight teachers who are unable to set an example to the children. Anna has to give up one day of PE a week so she can learn to play the clarinet in band class ... where does it say that children should have to choose? And, why should one be sacrificed for the other? My youngest son has one recess a day for 30 minutes ... that's 30 MINUTES for 7 hours a day of class time. And they wonder why he can't sit still and talks too much.

As you can see, your response to the article struck a chord in me. I have always made sure the kids have had exercise and play sports outside of school but sports cost money and not everyone has that resource. Those people must rely on the school system to educate their children ... and that means PE (Physical EDUCATION)too.

Rusty said...

Agreed. therein lies the problem with articles like this one saying it doesn't matter. Furthermore, if this writer had looked into the matter deeper, he'd have found that studies show that PE actually results in students who are more focused and perform better academically. Outside of school Parents just need to make sure that they are letting kdis sit in front of video games and swill cola and chips. Did you know that No Child Left Behind had no requirements or standards for PE? Sad isn't it?

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