A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Richard Simmons, the fitness guru who first rose to multi-media fame in the 1980s as a TV personality and purveyor of excercise videos like “Sweatin’ to the Oldies,” parts 1, 2, and 3. Ostensibly, the post was about his plan–which I called “silly”–to include physical education as part of school accountability under NCLB. But it was really just an excuse to tell one of my favorite stories, which takes place during a year of shiftless wandering between undergrad and grad school in the early 1990s, wherein my best friend and I went–for purely ironic purposes–to see Richard at an event in a North Carolina shopping mall, made fun of his promotional materials, and were publicly chastised (in a friendly way) by the great man himself.
Well, because Richard Simmons is clearly a better man than I, he not only took all of this in good humor but personally reached out to the Quick and the ED and offered to talk to us about his education plan. We spoke on the morning of November 6th, and here’s what he said:
RS: How have you been, you little devil you? Look at you, how far you’ve come!
Q&E: I’ve come a long away since my irresponsible youth.
RS: Never lose a little bit of that. I’m so proud of you, you actually help get things done, you actually put things in the forefront of peoples’ minds, and that’s the main reason I wanted to talk with you, to ask for your help. I know that in your blog you said the work that I was doing on the NCLB was really silly…
Q&E: I did say that, but I’d like you to tell me why I’m wrong.
RS: Here’s where I’m coming from. I don’t want the kids today to grow up and be me. Because I was the kid who hated PE (physical education), I was the kid who hated exercise, and I was not introduced to it in a palatable way, it was only in the schoolyard where people picked teams and I was never on one. And about two years ago, a colleague of mine said, “Richard, what is your legacy?” I said, “I want to keep people healthy and I want people to continue to exercise.” I want to get PE back in the school system, because to me it’s never really been introduced properly in the majority of schools.
Here’s my dream: To get a bill passed where we can get PE back in the schools. And we tried those bills but they didn’t go anywhere, because they weren’t attached to anything. To get a brand-new bill going is, as you know, very difficult. I was just in Washington recently, and I got a taste of that hectic, crazy life, and—Wow! I don’t know why everyone isn’t on more Tums.
Q&E: We’re on stronger things than Tums.
RS: (Laughs) So I met with Congressman Wamp and then Chairperson George Miller and other people and they said, “Look, NCLB is going to be up for reauthorization, let’s see if we can get something in there.” So—as you said in your little blog—I went to David Letterman, trying to get as many people interested as I can, and thousands of people went to my Web site and sent emails to Chairperson George Miller and Senator Kennedy. I was very strong in what I was saying even though David was trying to drive me crazy.
The people in Washington said, “There are these things called ‘multiple measures,’ and this is where the school gets a report card and if the report is good and they get kids to excel, their grade goes up for the school.” So I said, “Great–but where’s PE? Let’s make that a multiple measure.” That’s where we are right now. They all said there’d be a vote, but now it looks like this will not be really addressed until next year.
Q&E: I looked at your legislation, and the standard is based on time—schools would have to offering 150 minutes per week of phys ed for all students in elementary school, and 225 minutes a week in high school. What about quality?
RS: Before I answer that, you tell me—how do we get PE back in the school system?
Q&E: Frame it terms of health problems, like childhood obesity, and the long-term financial consequences—spend a little money now, get big returns down the road in terms of reduced health care costs. That’s the single biggest fiscal problem the federal government has, the long-term cost of health care.
RS: You’d think that the health world would embrace us, but…I’m the one the mother’s write to. They write to different TV personalities for different reasons, and I have here a group of emails from people who have had weight loss surgery and they’ve gained all their weight back. I have another group writing me about their daughters or sons who are morbidly obese, and they have type II diabetes, and they are taking medication for blood pressure—and they are 11 years old. Our kids are going to die, they are going to end up morbidly obese with no future and no dreams, and if we do something now we can save all those health costs. But I’ve tried all the different avenues, so let me ask you again: how do we get PE back in the school system?
Q&E: Putting it in the NCLB debate seems to be working for you, because now people are paying attention. I agree with your goals, but I’m worried that if we put so many things in NCLB it gets hard for schools to navigate…
RS: Well, we have to have some priorities here. Our kids are in school longer than they are any place else for that many consecutive hours. You know the kids are not getting up and exercising, because they’re eating and getting ready for school and finishing their homework, and all these silly tests and the crazy math and reading…
Q&E: We want them to be physically fit and be good at math and reading, right?
RS: But where do we carve out the time for PE? When some the new things are added to NCLB—a lot more science, more reading and more math—when are we going to find time for the kids to go out and socialize, for the kids to go out and move? I just talked to this wonderful lady, Catherine Davis. She’s amazing. She has proven that when kids go outside, socialize, work up a sweat—she did two different studies, one 20 minutes of working out and one 40 minutes and most of the test scores went up. And so doesn’t that show us this is important? Why does everybody in Washington have blinders on?
Q&E: I think they see phys-ed as a marginal activity, compared to other things.
RS: It’s more than phys-ed.
Q&E: Right, that’s an important distinction for you to make.
RS: It’s creating and planting the seed of a healthy lifestyle in a child’s mind. Kevin, what percentage of the parents of these kids do you think are overweight?
Q&E: 20 percent?
RS: I can only tell you from sitting at this desk for 34 years and doing this, I’m going to say close to 60 – 70 percent of overweight children have one or both overweight parents. If the mother is getting up and having a Pop Tart, and the father’s having one, guess what the kid’s having? And what percentage of these people who have overweight children, or even regular-size children, exercise on a regular basis?
Q&E: I think part of the problem is in the language you’re using, the legislation talks about “physical education,” When I was in school, phys-ed was pretty useless, the teachers said “go play dodge ball” or whatever, and then sat on the sidelines. People may think you’re trying to mandate something that isn’t very effective, so you need a new way to talk about it. Re-brand physical education.
RS: I’d love that, but what a hard sell. Now it looks like Chairperson George Miller won’t be able to move the legislation because everything is rushed right now, and next year is an election year. How many laws get passed in an election year?
Q&E: It’s a tough environment.
RS: We’ve left our children’s behinds behind. That really is the sad part, it’s just heartbreaking. I go through so many airports and still teach at shopping malls like where I met you last time, and you should see the size of these children and the size of their parents.
Q&E: Have you talked to Governor Schwarzenegger? Isn’t he a big phys-ed guy?
RS: I have not talked to Governor Schwarzenegger, he has a lot on his plate. But I’ll tell you, here in California, our kids are in desperate need of moving. I have taught classes for the Unified School District and I see what’s out there. Some schools have nothing; some schools have PE once a week for 15 minutes.
Plus, it has to be part of a curriculum. We test our kids in math and science based on a curriculum, but when we test our kids on physical activity, we say get down and give me 100 crunches, 100 push ups, give me 500 jumping jacks, and these kids don’t know how to do it because their bodies are not prepared. They have no stamina, no lung capacity, their hearts aren’t strong.
How do I say this nicely—of the people who work for Congress and all the rest of the government, what percentage of these men and women are healthy? What percentage are so stressed out, just like plumbers and people that work in a bank, that they don’t take care of themselves, they don’t eat properly, because they’re always on the go in meetings, grabbing things here and there? Does this sound familiar?
Q&E: Dinners with clients…
RS: Dinners with clients, no time for exercise, what percentage of the people who make the decisions in our government are healthy?
Q&E: President Bush seems pretty healthy. Say you what you want about George Bush, he seems genuinely committed to physical fitness. Have you talked to any of his people?
RS: Yes, I actually had some conversations with his publicist, and he said he didn’t really want to talk to me.
Q&E: What about the teachers unions? You’re going to be talking to the National Education Association soon, right? They invited you?
RS: Either next month or in February, they’re flying me in for their meeting.
They didn’t think I was silly, Kevin.
Q&E: Fair point! What are you going to tell them?
RS: I have an idea to incorporate all the PE teachers and certified aerobic instructors–there are more than 300,000 in our country. When you want to be a certified aerobic instructor, you go through a certification through IDEA or AFA or ACE or the ACSM. And then you teach at Bally’s and 24-Hour Fitness and all these other studios. Well, guess what? The studios are starving. They’re closing left and right, so the majority of certified aerobic instructors aren’t working. So let’s take the expertise from the PE teachers at the NEA and the expertise of these individuals that are certified instructors and bring them into a melting pot and come up with a way that they can work together and teach at the schools.
Q&E: That seems like a good idea.
RS: Well, that’s my big idea. I believe if I addressed every Congressman and Senator, not one would doubt my plan for our school system, because they are all very concerned about health care and our future. We’ve got a huge, expensive problem. That’s why there are so many weight loss surgeries. Overweight people tended to be chronically ill; it was breaking the insurance company’s bank. So they give them the surgery, cut their intestines—easy, quick! Well, guess what? They’re gaining the weight back, they’re having a second and third surgery, finding a blood clot or a burst hernia, and now the insurance companies are saying, “Oops! Wait a minute. I think we made a mistake.”
Q&E: There’s the long-term cost issue again—Medicare and Medicaid are becoming unbelievably expensive.
RS: I can help turn the whole thing around. I have the support of hundreds of thousands of people. If I went to PTA meetings I could put a hat out and people would give me money to pay these aerobic instructors and the PE teachers at NEA so you they could make a living and we could have healthy kids.
Q&E: The aerobic instructors could become members of the NEA, they’d love that.
RS: They would! I’m working with the NEA, and I’m working with the National School Board, I’m trying to gather up as many gold charms on my bracelet as I can, so that we can go and take this bracelet to President Bush. And if it doesn’t get done by then, we’ll take it to the next president.
Q&E: Are there any particular states, school districts or schools that you think have exemplary physical education programs that other schools should look to as an example?
RS: Well, here’s what happens. You get a school district that says, “Let’s start a walking program!” And everyone gets excited and flies to these places to look at the role model, and by the time they’ve flow there, it’s over. It has to be long-lasting, but everyone only does it for a short period of time. It’s like the weight loss surgeries—there is no research done for the long-term care and future of someone who has the surgery, and we may find in three years the whole thing was wrong. Yet there are schools—you see them in USA Today—where people say, “Look at this! These children picked up trash on the highways and lost two pounds.” That’s great, but it’s temporary, it’s just a quick fix.
Q&E: So we need more long-term, systemic reforms?
RS: Right. And people will say, “That silly little guy in the tank top and shorts knew what he was saying, because look at our kids now.” He helped introduce them to moving and activity and social time together, and now instead of them learning how to exercise in their 20′s, 30′s, or 40′s, and suffering from obesity and health problems, they’ll get a taste of it at an early age and continue to believe in themselves.
Q&E: Are there any other areas we should look at, junk food advertising on children’s television, that sort of thing?
RS: You know, everyone writes me: “Richard, they should close McDonald’s. Richard, Burger King, KFC!” There will always be fast food, none of those foods will ever be illegal. People just don’t have the right focus and the right food program, because our country does not educate people about eating. Plus, the food industry is a huge, huge monster. It turns out and churns out exactly what the public wants, and that’s quick, fast, processed food that has a nice taste to it. Sadly enough, that taste is trans-fatty acids, grease, cream, butter and salt.
Q&E: What about sports? My gym classes were terrible, but I ran track and cross-country, so I did a lot of physical activity after school. Should we give schools credit for that?
RS: Kids should have a choice about physical activity. A certain percentage of children can’t wait to play soccer, or hoops and loops, or run track. But that’s not the majority of people. If you look at a football stadium, you see 60,000 people in the stadium eating hot dogs, French fries, popcorn and a soda pop. Then you see a select few people with little helmets on that run around the field and entertain everybody. That’s just like the world. Most people don’t want to play sports, they don’t feel comfortable, they don’t have the body, the strength, they don’t have the self-worth. So the school should offer sports, but they should offer alternative programs for people who are not jocks. It has to be balanced, giving children a choice of physical activity.
Q&E: You’ve been great. What’s next?
RS: I want you to stay in touch, because you know you have your pulse there, this is your life. Like a vampire, all this is your blood. We need to continue this, because if NCLB is not reauthorized it’ll mean another five years of our kids being denied physical activity and their parents taking them to the doctor. Our kids need more.