The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), in partnership with the University of South Carolina and the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, has released a new SC FitnessGram data report, revealing a steady decline in student health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SC FitnessGram assessment is a comprehensive physical fitness test that evaluates various components of fitness, including aerobic capacity, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition. The test is administered by school PE teachers in grades 2, 5, 8, and high school in participating schools across South Carolina.
In keeping with the declines in health noted in the study, participation in the study also declined from 64 districts in 2018-19 to just 52 in 2020-21, and of those 52 districts, only 21 districts had high-enough student participation data to be considered responsive. This study reflects data from those districts, which represent 48,154 students, 58% of whom qualify as living in poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The report shows the percentage of children in the “Healthy Weight Category” decreased from 65% pre-pandemic to 59% post-pandemic, and the percentage of students in the “Healthy Fitness Zone” for cardiorespiratory fitness (i.e., heart and lung function) declined from 60% pre-pandemic to 51% post-pandemic.
There were also several disparities present in the data:
- A disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic children scored lower on all testing than their White peers;
- Students living in poverty are less likely to achieve the Healthy Fitness Zone; and
- The percentage of students in the Healthy Fitness Zone decreases from elementary to middle to high school.
“This stark decline when students are not in the school setting, particularly for marginalized populations, proves that students are much more physically active when attending school in person,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC public health director. “These numbers show us just how important the role of public schools is to our children’s overall health, and schools should continue to promote physical activity before, during, and after school. We have a lot of ground to make up.”
Dr. Russ Pate of the USC Arnold School of Public Health and his team at the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group has been analyzing the SC FitnessGram data since its inception in 2014 and producing statewide reports of the data annually.
“These findings add to the growing body of evidence showing that the COVID pandemic harmed children’s health by depriving them of the physical activity that they normally receive in the school setting,” Pate said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, healthy children are less likely to develop chronic health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease at a young age. The health of children also has a direct impact on academic capabilities. Children who are within a healthy weight range tend to have better memory, attention spans and self-esteem compared to those who are overweight or obese.
Breonna Mealing, SC FitnessGram Coordinator, said the connection of childhood health to the workforce of tomorrow can’t be underestimated.
“Even within the Career and Technical Education offerings for South Carolina students, there are many jobs that require physical fitness such as construction, the military, manufacturing, transportation and corrections,” Mealing said. “While offering these pathways to our students is important, equally as important is ensuring students are physically capable to take on those jobs once they graduate.”
The critical data SC FitnessGram produces each year is used to support programs and policies in public schools that will improve the health of our children. However, schools alone cannot bear all of the burden.
“We are calling on not only schools, but community organizations, parents, community members, and students themselves to play a role in the movement for daily physical activity,” Mealing said. “Not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something.”
Visit SC FitnessGram at scdhec.gov/fitnessgram for the full data report and summary and to learn more about how you can support the movement to support students’ health from head to heart.