JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A new study finds that older schoolchildren are less physically fit than younger schoolchildren in Mississippi.
Black students are typically more out-of-shape than white students, and girls are more out-of-shape the boys, according to findings.
Though there's no national benchmark, the study also found Mississippi students are less fit than children in several other states.
Researchers are also questioning the effectiveness of school-level health councils, which are supposed to guide health and wellness. They found most councils don't include all the representatives mandated by law, and suggest that the state consider district-level councils, as called for by federal law.
The findings are part of the effort to track results of 2007's Mississippi Healthy Students Act, a law meant to promote nutrition, exercise and health education. State leaders hope the law will help fight obesity in Mississippi, which translates into poor health and early death for many residents.
There's some evidence that the act is working, combined with a similar federal law that requires healthier school food. In 2011, a survey found obesity rates were dropping among Mississippi elementary school students and leveling out among students overall. That study, which was hailed as proof of the act's effectiveness, found obesity rates were falling among white students, but were flat or rising among black students. A new study of obesity was conducted in early 2013, but results are not yet available.
There's a lot of evidence, though, that Mississippi has a long way to go, including surveys that suggest family behavior at home hasn't changed much. The fitness survey, which examined students in grades 3-12, found that only 12 percent displayed health levels in six measures — body composition, aerobic capacity, upper body strength, flexibility, abdominal strength and trunk lift. The study found 55 percent of students could pass four of the six tests.
While about 15 percent of elementary school students could pass all six tests, fewer than 9 percent of high school students could.
Females were significantly less likely to pass all six than males, and black students were significantly less likely to pass than white students.
Mississippi students were less fit than those in four other states where researchers found similar measures — California, Georgia, Texas and West Virginia.
"A lot of that data is true across the country," said Scott Clements, director of the state Department of Education's Office of Health Schools. "You see those disparities, you see that decline as students get older."
State law mandates 30 minutes a day of physical activity for students in grades K-8, but only a one-semester class in high school. Therese Hanna, executive director of the Center for Mississippi Health Policy, said it's not clear if less physical education drives the decline in older students' fitness levels.
"There's clearly a reduction in physical activity levels as children get older, and we know there's a reduction in the requirements," Hanna said. "But this study does not make that direct association."
Researchers also found that only 18 percent of schools had a health council whose membership meets state law. The councils make wellness plans for schools as well as recommend curriculum and instruction time for health and physical education.
The 2007 law required that each council include at least one member from 12 different categories. Beyond teachers and administrators, school boards are supposed to appoint the director of school food service, students, parents, health care professionals, business people, law enforcement officers, senior citizens, ministers and representatives of health groups.
The report recommends considering school district-level councils, in hopes of securing better participation from groups beyond teachers and principals.
"That might be better than having weak councils at every school," Hanna said.
The Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation is completing a program to try to create effective councils at 17 schools in northeast Mississippi. Foundation Executive Director Sheila Grogan said one key is making health a top-level goal of the district and superintendent. Overall findings from the pilot program are not complete.
Clements acknowledged that some schools struggle to fill their councils, but said he still favors school-level organizations, so the needs of each school will be discussed.
"I think there's a lot to be said for the school health council," Clements said.