Avery Stackhouse, age 7, of Lafayette, Calif., says he wishes he had more time for phys ed.
"We just have it one day a week — on Monday." There's always lunch and recess, he says. "We play a couple of games, like football and soccer," he tells Shots.
But at Happy Valley Elementary, where he goes to school, recess last only 15 minutes and lunch is 45. Between eating and mingling, he says, "there's only a few minutes left where we play games and all that."
Fifty-six percent of parents say their elementary school kids are getting just one or two days of physical education a week, according to a poll NPR conducted in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Fewer than 1 in 5 parents with children in kindergarten through fifth grade said their kids were getting physical education daily.
Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that K-5 students get at least 150 minutes a week. Physical activity has a lot of benefits, from reducing obesity to helping kids do better academically.
Louisiana State University's Russ Carson, an exercise researcher, tells Shots the poll results don't surprise him. "This has been going on for years, unfortunately," he says. School administrators can only fit so many things into a day, and often, he says, "testing and other aspects of education take precedence over physical education."
More and more, Carson says parents and educators are starting to "think beyond the gym walls," and come up with ways to fit in exercise before or after school. One idea is to have teachers integrate physical activity into match and reading lessons.
At Wildwood Elementary, a private school in Amherst, Mass., kids are required to take a morning walk between the time buses drop them off and classes start.
Rebecca Spencer, whose 5- and 7-year-old daughters attend Wildwood, says it's a good way for the kids to fit in some more exercise. "They only get [physical education] once a week, and it's for an hour. So it's very brief," Spencer tells Shots.
The school has also organized what it calls a jog-a-thon for the older kids. Students can run laps around the playground to earn points, and the school keeps track of all their miles to see how far they've run collectively run.
Spencer's older daughter also swims after school.
And these school-wide initiatives are a good way to get every student to exercise, Spencer says. "Some people think of recess as a time for physical activity," she says. "But there's actually nothing to make sure these kids are being physical during that time." Having some structured P.E. classes at school is important, she says.
Spencer, a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts, says she's well aware of the physical and cognitive benefits that kids get from being active. "The physical education is giving them some of the motor skills that they need," she says. But, she also says she understands that the school doesn't necessarily have the resources to provide more P.E. classes.
"Exercise — any exercise — is great for brain development," she says. "Most of the studies that have been done that show how the brain develops through exercise actually don't use any special form of exercise," she says. "They typically use just treadmill walking."
That seems to indicate that even a even simple walk around a track can do kids a lot of good.
For years, a car accident has been blamed for killing former Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek, who died in 1976. But a new inquiry has found the politician was murdered by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years.
"We have no doubt that Juscelino Kubitschek was the victim of a conspiracy, a plot and a political attack," Sao Paulo Truth Commission leader Gilberto Natalini says, according to Agence France-Presse.
Kubitschek served as Brazil's president from 1956 to 1961; his election as a former surgeon with a devotion to infrastructure and development garnered a cover story in Time magazine. At the time of his death, the former leader, 73, worked as a banker.
The panel that looked into Kubitschek's death found "more than 90 pieces of evidence and clues on the military's involvement in his death on Aug. 22, 1976, on a road near the town of Resende, in the south of Rio de Janeiro state," the AFP says, citing Natalini.
The military junta that seized power in Brazil in 1964 maintained control until 1985. For several years, the dictatorship forced Kubitschek into exile. He was killed less than 10 years after his return.
Kubitschek's death has long been attributed to an accident in which a bus hit his car. But for just as long, suspicions have lingered over the official story.
From the BBC:
"Among the evidence is testimony from the driver of the bus that crashed into the former president's car.
"He is said to have told the investigators he had been offered money in exchange for admitting guilt for the accident.
"Another witness reportedly told the commission he briefly saw a bullet hole in the head of Mr Kubitschek's driver during an exhumation procedure in 1996."
The commission is releasing its full report today.
During his presidential tenure, Kubitschek sought to modernize Brazil and develop its industrial ability. He moved the nation's capital from Rio de Janeiro to the planned city of Brasilia, which remains defined by its modern architecture. The city's international airport is named in his honor.
Eat candy and fight tooth decay. What a sweet concept, right?
Well, microbiologists in Berlin are trying to make that dream a reality.
They've created a sugarless mint that's aimed at washing out cavity-causing bacteria from your mouth. And the candy works in a curious way: It's spiked with dead bacteria. It's like probiotics for your teeth.
The experimental mint is still in the early days of development — and far from reaching the shelves at Walgreens.
But a study involving a few dozen volunteers published in September suggests that the concept is promising: Sucking on the bacteria-laced mints lowered the levels of cavity-causing bacteria in the saliva of volunteers, microbiologists reported in Probiotics and Antimicrobial Proteins.
So how does the candy work?
Our mouths are microbial jungles. They're filled with more than 600 species of bacteria. Most of them are harmless. But in terms of tooth decay, one critter is the major culprit: Streptococcus mutans. These bacteria take sugars in our food and turn them into tooth-dissolving acids.
So microbiologist Christine Lang at Organobalance — a German research and development firm that focuses on probiotics — thought, why not get the good bacteria to fight off the bad ones?
"We were looking for something new for oral hygiene," Lang tells The Salt. "Something that specifically recognizes and binds to Streptoccocus mutans, but wouldn't kill the other microbes in the mouth."
Lang and her team screened nearly 800 different types of bacteria until they found one critter that keeps Streptoccocus from sticking onto the surface of teeth. The healthy bacteria, called Lactobacillus paracasei, are found in yogurt and kefir, and they seem to stop Streptoccocus even when they're dead. (That's because the good bacteria hook onto Streptoccocus and cause it to clump up, Lang says.)
So the researchers spiked a sugarless mint with the dead Lactobacillus and then had people suck on the candies. Ten minutes later, the researchers measured the levels of the bad bacteria in the volunteers' mouths. They found that the dead bacteria did strip away some of the Streptoccocus in the volunteers' saliva. However, the effect was small and researchers don't know yet how long it lasts.
Even so, the results are encouraging enough, Lang says, that her team is planning a larger and longer experiment. But James Bader at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry is more skeptical.
"The concept is sound," the research dentist tells The Salt. "Anything we can do to reduce the concentrations of strep mutans in the mouth is good."
But it's way too early to draw many conclusions, he says. "The reduction by the candy is really temporary and very small," he says.
To fight cavities, Bader says, the candy would have to go after bacteria stuck in the plaque on the teeth — not bacteria in the saliva. "What the researchers have shown is that it [sucking on the candy] has some activity in deactivating Streptococcus mutans that are free-floating in the mouth," he says. "They still have to prove that it reduces the bacteria in the biofilm on the teeth."
And that can be a trickier task, Bader says. For decades, he notes, dentists thought that a chemical put in sugarless candy and gum, called xylitol, reduced cavities by killing Streptococcus inside the plaque.
But a large, long-term study by Bader and his colleagues this year didn't support the claims. Even sucking on xylitol lozenges five times a day for three years didn't significantly cut a person's risk for developing cavities, the study found.
"Gum manufacturers have taken a long look at the effect of sugarless gum on teeth" Bader says. "People have less plaque [when they regularly chew gum], but the companies haven't shown that they have less caries."
We all know the story, or think we do.
Let me tell it the old way, then the new way. See which worries you most.
First version: Easter Island is a small 63-square-mile patch of land — more than a thousand miles from the next inhabited spot in the Pacific Ocean. In A.D. 1200 (or thereabouts), a small group of Polynesians — it might have been a single family — made their way there, settled in and began to farm. When they arrived, the place was covered with trees — as many as 16 million of them, some towering 100 feet high.
These settlers were farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, so they burned down woods, opened spaces, and began to multiply. Pretty soon the island had too many people, too few trees, and then, in only a few generations, no trees at all.
As Jared Diamond tells it in his best-selling book, Collapse, Easter Island is the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources." Once tree clearing started, it didn't stop until the whole forest was gone. Diamond called this self-destructive behavior "ecocide" and warned that Easter Island's fate could one day be our own.
When Captain James Cook visited there in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders (from an earlier population of thousands), living marginal lives, their canoes reduced to patched fragments of driftwood.
And that has become the lesson of Easter Island — that we don't dare abuse the plants and animals around us, because if we do, we will, all of us, go down together.
And yet, puzzlingly, these same people had managed to carve enormous statues — almost a thousand of them, with giant, hollow-eyed, gaunt faces, some weighing 75 tons. The statues faced not outward, not to the sea, but inward, toward the now empty, denuded landscape. When Captain Cook saw them, many of these "moai" had been toppled and lay face down, in abject defeat.
OK, that's the story we all know, the Collapse story. The new one is very different.
A Story Of Success?
It comes from two anthropologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, from the University of Hawaii. They say, "Rather than a case of abject failure," what happened to the people on Easter Island "is an unlikely story of success."
Success? How could anyone call what happened on Easter Island a "success?"
Well, I've taken a look at their book, The Statues That Walked, and oddly enough they've got a case, although I'll say in advance what they call "success" strikes me as just as scary — maybe scarier.
Here's their argument: Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what's called "large scale prehistoric farming." The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats.
Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate. As a reviewer in The Wall Street Journal reported,
In laboratory settings, Polynesian rat populations can double in 47 days. Throw a breeding pair into an island with no predators and abundant food and arithmetic suggests the result ... If the animals multiplied as they did in Hawaii, the authors calculate, [Easter Island] would quickly have housed between two and three million. Among the favorite food sources of R. exulans are tree seeds and tree sprouts. Humans surely cleared some of the forest, but the real damage would have come from the rats that prevented new growth.
As the trees went, so did 20 other forest plants, six land birds and several sea birds. So there was definitely less choice in food, a much narrower diet, and yet people continued to live on Easter Island, and food, it seems, was not their big problem.
Rat Meat, Anybody?
For one thing, they could eat rats. As J.B. MacKinnon reports in his new book, The Once and Future World, archeologists examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones and found "that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats."
So they'd found a meat substitute.
What's more, though the island hadn't much water and its soil wasn't rich, the islanders took stones, broke them into bits, and scattered them onto open fields creating an uneven surface. When wind blew in off the sea, the bumpy rocks produced more turbulent airflow, "releasing mineral nutrients in the rock," J.B. MacKinnon says, which gave the soil just enough of a nutrient boost to support basic vegetables. One tenth of the island had these scattered rock "gardens," and they produced enough food, "to sustain a population density similar to places like Oklahoma, Colorado, Sweden and New Zealand today."
According to MacKinnon, scientists say that Easter Island skeletons from that time show "less malnutrition than people in Europe." When a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggevin, happened by in 1722, he wrote that islanders didn't ask for food. They wanted European hats instead. And, of course, starving folks typically don't have the time or energy to carve and shove 70-ton statues around their island.
A 'Success' Story?
Why is this a success story?
Because, say the Hawaiian anthropologists, clans and families on Easter Island didn't fall apart. It's true, the island became desolate, emptier. The ecosystem was severely compromised. And yet, say the anthropologists, Easter Islanders didn't disappear. They adjusted. They had no lumber to build canoes to go deep-sea fishing. They had fewer birds to hunt. They didn't have coconuts. But they kept going on rat meat and small helpings of vegetables. They made do.
One niggling question: If everybody was eating enough, why did the population decline? Probably, the professors say, from sexually transmitted diseases after Europeans came visiting.
OK, maybe there was no "ecocide." But is this good news? Should we celebrate?
I wonder. What we have here are two scenarios ostensibly about Easter Island's past, but really about what might be our planet's future. The first scenario — an ecological collapse — nobody wants that. But let's think about this new alternative — where humans degrade their environment but somehow "muddle through." Is that better? In some ways, I think this "success" story is just as scary.
The Danger Of 'Success'
What if the planet's ecosystem, as J.B. MacKinnon puts it, "is reduced to a ruin, yet its people endure, worshipping their gods and coveting status objects while surviving on some futuristic equivalent of the Easter Islanders' rat meat and rock gardens?"
Humans are a very adaptable species. We've seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant, animal after animal, forgetting what we once enjoyed, adjusting to lesser circumstances, never shouting, "That's It!" — always making do, I wouldn't call that "success."
The Lesson? Remember Tang, The Breakfast Drink
People can't remember what their great-grandparents saw, ate and loved about the world. They only know what they know. To prevent an ecological crisis, we must become alarmed. That's when we'll act. The new Easter Island story suggests that humans may never hit the alarm.
It's like the story people used to tell about Tang, a sad, flat synthetic orange juice that NASA invented for astronauts in space. If you know what real orange juice tastes like, Tang is no achievement. But if you are on a 50-year voyage, if you lose the memory of real orange juice, then gradually, you begin to think Tang is delicious.
On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.
As MacKinnon puts it: "If you're waiting for an ecological crisis to persuade human beings to change their troubled relationship with nature — you could be waiting a long, long time."
Back in 1995, more than half of all people of color rented their homes — almost twice the proportion of white renters. Then the Clinton Administration pushed policies to bolster homeownership rates and those numbers began a gradual, decade-long decline. The number of people of color renting fell below 50 percent. This coincided with an increased willingness by lenders to extend credit including to subprime borrowers.
But after the housing market imploded those rental rates began creeping up again across the board as unemployment increased, new credit dried up and banks foreclosed on bad mortgages. Others who previously might have bought homes now feared for their jobs or saw ownership as too much of a risk in a tanking market.
According to a new report from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, a growing number of Americans are currently facing a different kind of housing crunch. Now not only is homeownership out of reach (given lender requirements for larger down payments) but the monthly rent swallows ever-larger portions of their paychecks.
The study found more than half of all black and Latino renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, which is the traditional threshold for housing affordability. Spend more than that percentage of your salary on housing and you likely will find yourself skimping on other expenses.
(Nearly three in 10 of all renters spent more than half of their incomes on covering their housing costs. Not surprisingly, those people tend to cluster at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.)
In general, those who rent tend to make less money, which makes sense. A higher income means you have a better chance of saving up money for the down payment on a home and are more likely to qualify for a mortgage. "People of color are more likely to have lower incomes. And lower-income households have fared quite poorly [as rents have risen]," say Chris Herbert, the lead researcher on the project.
The racial skew in the rental market underscores the wide disparities that remain in homeownership. (As ProPublica's Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out to us last week, that isn't an accident.)
Herbert said that 59 percent of black renters were paying rent at higher than that 30 percent threshold, while 58 percent of Latinos were. That's compared to 46 percent of whites.
But why is this happening? The researchers said that the cost of renting an apartment has crept up over the last two decades at the same time that the real income of renters has declined.
And for people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic ladder, the surging demand for affordable housing is running up against a lack of supply. More than eight in 10 people with incomes below $15,000 were paying rent north of that 30 percent threshold.
"It's a challenging problem that has been growing over a long period of time, so there's not necessarily an easy solution or even a single solution," Herbert said.
He said that building more rental housing might alleviate pressure on rental prices, but only at the margins. A more effective approach, he said, would be providing work at incomes where people could make ends meet.
Herbert said that as housing swallows up an ever-larger slice of renters' incomes, people are cutting back on other things like food, transportation, healthcare and retirement savings.
Surprisingly, the rising cost of rent hasn't resulted in a sharp uptick in the country's level of homelessness, Herbert said; federal intervention has helped hold the line.
"In the rental market, everybody is facing a tough time," Herbert said.