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A state fitness test suggests L.A. students have some more exercising to do

A state fitness test suggests L.A. students have some more exercising to do
Luke Hakanen, 9, works out as fourth and fifth grade students exercise at the fitness center at Kentwood Elementary School in Los Angeles. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

How fit are the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District?

According to a statewide test, not nearly as fit as they should be.

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L.A. Unified students at two of three tested grade levels performed a tad less well on the California Physical Fitness test last year than they did the year before. And overall, fewer than one-third of the tested students passed each fitness area assessed.

Just under one-fifth — 19.1% — of Los Angeles Unified fifth-graders performed in "the Healthy Fitness Zone" in all six areas tested: aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extensor strength, upper body strength and flexibility. Last year, 20.1% of fifth-graders passed the six subjects. Seventh-graders did a little better (22.3%) and ninth-graders a little better still (26.8%), though they were down from 28.3% last year.

On average, California's students fared significantly better than their Los Angeles counterparts, but they, too, lost a bit of ground.

Statewide, about 1.3 million students took the test, which is supposed to "assist students in establishing lifetime habits of regular physical activity," according to information about it on the website of the state Department of Education.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson — a former high school track coach — stressed the importance of good physical health. "Healthy, active, and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school and are more prepared and motivated to learn," he said in a statement.

Adults, he said, should be "eating healthy foods and exercising so we can serve as role models for healthy living."

Trunk extensor strength Flexibility Abdominal strength Upper body strength Body composition Aerobic capacity 87.1% 83.3 76.1 64.7 55.2 52 Trunk extensor strength Flexibility Abdominal strength Upper body strength Body composition Aerobic capacity 87.1% 83.3 76.1 64.7 55.2 52 L.A. Unified ninth graders in "Healthy Fitness Zone" Data: abcdefg hijkl mnop qrstu vwxyz 1234 56789 Joy Resmovits / @latimesgraphics Source: California Department of Education
Trunk extensor strength Flexibility Upper body strength Body composition Aerobic capacity 90.3% 84.8 72.6 63.8 63.5 Trunk extensor strength Flexibility Upper body strength Body composition Aerobic capacity 90.3% 84.8 72.6 63.8 63.5 Calif. ninth graders in the "Healthy Fitness Zone" Data: abcdefg hijkl mnop qrstu vwxyz 1234 56789 Joy Resmovits / @latimesgraphics Source: California Department of Education

Los Angeles Unified has enacted several health-oriented policies, including a revamp of its lunch program and a ban on the sale of junk food from student stores. There's also a program that dispatches 19 physical-education teachers to elementary school classrooms to help teach healthy habits.

Still, according to the test results, across all three grades and six fitness areas, between 8.7% and 28.8% of district students face a "health risk."

Katie McGrath, director of elementary instruction for the district, said she uses the test results as part of a greater effort to track students' fitness. She asks teachers to tell students about their progress in the context of discussing the importance of staying active in life.

She also sees the potential risks of focusing on the physical with young students. "The way you look doesn't necessarily determine your fitness level," she said. "Their awareness of their own power and beauty are important to their development."

At the high school level, said Gary Garcia, L.A. Unified's director for senior instruction, teachers are busy helping students head to college. "Physical health is just one more thing that's important," he said. If ninth-graders don't pass 5 out of 6 fitness test areas, they have to repeat a year of physical education and take the test again.

Students in fifth, seventh and ninth grades are required by state law to have their fitness assessed.

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The fitness test includes a variety of measures of physical health. To look at  flexibility, for example, it has students sit and extend one leg out in front of them and then bend their trunks, arms extended, as far as they can toward it. Students also do push-ups, trunk lifts, runs and walks, and their body mass is measured.

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

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