Why Are More Kids Getting Hurt in Gym Class?

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Between 1997 and 2007, the annual number of gym class injuries grew by 150%, according to a study published in this week’s edition of the journal Pediatrics. In 1997, there were an average 4.39 trips to the emergency room per every 10,000 kids; a decade later, that was up to 10.9 visits. “This is a really big increase,” says Lara McKenzie, the principal researcher for the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and the lead author of the study. She points out that of the average 36,000 physical education-related injuries per year, 70% were caused by the same six activities: running, basketball, football, volleyball, soccer and gymnastics. “Dodgeball, happily, was not on the list,” McKenzie says.

She and her colleagues are hoping that this study — the first to comprehensively analyze P.E. injuries in a large population of more than 400,000 kids admitted to emergency rooms — will help guide injury prevention and education programs. For example, half of all injuries were among middle school kids, which suggests additional attention needs to be paid to how their growing bodies may adapt to different activities.

Also, not only were boys more likely to get injured than girls (with 54% of injuries), but how and where they hurt themselves differed. Boys were more likely to get hurt playing group sports or by colliding with other kids or their surroundings, whereas girls were more apt to twist an ankle while running, playing tennis or participating in other individual or paired activities. “Since our findings showed some age and gender and activity specific injuries, that could really guide and focus our injury prevention [techniques] and our future research,” McKenzie said.

Yet what is behind this dramatic increase in injuries? It isn’t likely a growing participation in gym, which, in the face of budget cuts often gets trimmed down to meet bare minimum requirements. It could be that we’re merely hearing about more injuries: as fewer schools have their own nurses, more kids may be heading to the E.R. for treatment instead.

And though weight information wasn’t available for this data set, McKenzie speculates that another contributing factor could be the growing prevalence of childhood obesity, meaning proportionally more overweight kids are participating in gym class and could be at higher risk for hurting themselves.

As for my inquiry as to whether we’re just coddling kids more, McKenzie said it’s hard to pull that kind of conclusion from the information available. “This data set is a really good surveillance tool,” she says, “but it doesn’t tell us why people go to the E.R.”

While there is some debate over how much exercise kids actually get in gym class compared to outside of school, for now, P.E. is still a popular tool for tackling childhood obesity. And, given the associated health risks of severe overweight in kids, McKenzie says that the benefits of exercise still far outweigh the risk of injury. “The long term effects of inactivity outweigh the relatively minor costs of P.E. activities,” she says. —By Tiffany Sharples