SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District students outperformed their peers in Los Angeles County and across California in most categories on a statewide fitness test, but many children still fall short of the standards, according to results released this week.

The Physical Fitness Test, which will be administered between Feb. 1 and May 31 in 2012, looks at the aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extension strength, upper body strength and flexibility of students in the fifth, seventh and ninth grades.

To be declared physically fit, a student has to test within the “Healthy Fitness Zone” in all six of the criteria.

Only 31 percent of the 1.34 million students tested in California met that mark. Santa Monica-Malibu beat that dismal statistic, but not by much, with 39.3 percent passing all six health standards.

“Today’s results are clear: when only 31 percent of children are physically fit, that’s a public health challenge we can’t wait to address,” said State Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

The test classifies kids as being either within the Healthy Fitness Zone, not in the zone or both not in the zone and “high risk.”

That means students may have a higher potential for future health problems, like metabolic syndrome, said Linda Hooper, a consultant for the Department of Education.

According to test results, SMMUSD’s fifth and seventh graders had a higher percentage of success in all categories except flexibility than the statewide figures, while ninth graders performed better in all categories except for trunk extension and upper body strength.

That still leaves almost one-fifth of fifth and seventh graders unable to pass an upper body strength test, and a quarter of ninth graders lagging in their aerobic capacity.

While all indicators are important, the state looks most closely at body composition figures, meaning the ratio of fat to muscle and other tissues in the body.

Body composition is the most important indicator of who will develop future health problems, according to a press release by the Department of Education.

By that token, 34 percent of fifth graders, 30.3 percent of seventh graders and 25 percent of ninth graders in the state of California are considered “high risk” in terms of body composition.

In SMMUSD, 19.9 percent of fifth graders, 20.4 percent of seventh graders and 16.3 percent of ninth graders fall into the same category.

More students failed the body composition test this year than in years past because of a change in standards that made the test harder to pass, Hooper said.

The new standards had a greater impact on children of lower socioeconomic status and students of color, according to the results.

It held true in SMMUSD as well, with greater percentages of African American and Latino students in the high risk category than white students in every case except for fifth grade, where 13.9 percent of white students were classified high risk compared to 13.2 percent African American students.

It’s a problem, said Bertha Ramon, the teacher on special assignment with the physical education department.

The school district is trying to take extra steps to promote physical fitness, like Bike It! Day, which is why, on average, SMMUSD has healthier kids, Ramon said.

Changing the body composition figures amongst minority students remains a challenge.

“We do try to target those populations,” Ramon said. “In our schools that have greater minorities, we have programs like healthy eating programs where we provide food for them to promote a healthier lifestyle.”

To suggest that the differences between the populations is purely racial would be an oversimplification, said Dr. Dennis Woo, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine and former chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Santa Monica-UCLA Hospital.

Socioeconomics play a large role, particularly in the kinds of food that families can afford and how much the parents are in the home to make sure children eat healthfully and get out from in front of computers, televisions and other sedentary pastimes.

“I really think it’s something we need to emphasize that kids should be more physically active. The biggest struggle we fight with is that and good eating habits,” Woo said.

Breaking those cycles can save kids from future medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease, he said.

After school programs like those at the Boys & Girls Club in Santa Monica help keep kids active and occupied when parents aren’t at home.

There’s a new sport activity every hour, from competitive games like flag football to the less-threatening bandana tag, said Tish Murry, vice president of operations at the club.

“They’re not in front of a TV, and they’re not playing video games. For the most part, they’re encouraged to join in at the gym, or outside on the playground,” Murry said.

In response to the growing obesity rates amongst children, the Boys & Girls Club adopted a Healthy Habits program, which teaches children to make better food selections, particularly when their parents aren’t around.

“We can’t change the house menu,” Murry said, “but we can teach kids to make healthy choices.”

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