With the current alarming epidemic of obesity in the United States -- starting with children at an early elementary school level -- wouldn't it make sense to increase, not decrease, the number of hours of physical education in our elementary schools so that youngsters can benefit from exercise that free kids up from tension and the pressures of the classroom?

It's a given that Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon must curb education spending if Westport is to sustain itself financially. He had indicated his willingness to do so -- but in at least one wrong place of the curriculum: He is proposing to cut physical education time in elementary schools -- the very years in a young child's life when he or she most needs exercise to avoid obesity.

Obesity, as we all know, starts in a child's formative years, and the bad habits a youngster establishes when in elementary school often carry over for the rest of their lives, which undoubtedly will be shortened as a result of a variety of diseases caused by obesity.

Under the current Westport curriculum, all elementary school students this year take part in twice weekly physical educational classes, ranging from 30 minutes for kindergarten gym sessions to 35 minutes for students in grades one through three and 40 minutes for fourth graders to 45 minutes for fifth graders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one hour of physical activity each day for children and adolescents.

Landon's reason for a cutback -- opposed by a number of phys ed teachers who spoke up at a recent Board of Education meeting -- is that cutting gym would allow more uninterrupted hours for teachers to focus on the fundamentals -- math, literacy, social studies and science.

For budget cutting purposes, removing two full-time physical education teachers from the staff would save the school district approximately $140,000 next year, according to a front-page article in this newspaper by reporter Paul Schott last Friday. This is pennywise and pound foolish (no pun intended).

As one physical education teacher, Joyce Evans of Coleytown Elementary School, put it at the meeting: "Physical education is a necessity, not a luxury, for the health and well-being of the whole child. It is an integral part of the educational process."

Jamie Viesselman, a Kings Highway Elementary School teacher, argued that cutting back PE would, indeed, make children more vulnerable to obesity. "Less physical activity at school and at home means kids aren't getting the exercise necessary for healthy development."

Landon tried to shift the blame of obesity to the families of Westport. "Let's face it, childhood obesity results from what kids eat at home If you're going to go to McDonald's and get a 1,200-calorie, fat-filled double cheeseburger on the weekend or for dinner, you can do all you want in school, it's not going to make any difference."

Mr. Landon makes a good point. Unless parents come down hard on what their children eats during non-school hours -- at home or in restaurants -- more PE in the schools alone will not reverse the worrisome trend of increasing obesity among our youth. Parents should practice what they preach or all the well-intended lecturing in the world will do no good.

The schools superintendent, to be fair, also pointed out that in addition to PE classes, Westport students have other options such as programs at the Westport-Weston Family Y and the Parks and Recreation Department. Some 1,500 Westport children are making use of the town's Parks and Recreation Department's youth basketball program, according to Stuart McCarrhy, longtime parks and rec director. His Town agency won an Excellence in Youth Sports Award last year from the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

What this all boils down to, I think, is that it takes a combination of environments -- the home, the schools, and use of town-run recreational facilities -- to keep our youngsters both physically fit and mentally sharp. Cutting back on school programs would be a mistake, I believe, because it removes one strong leg of a three-legged foundation.

From my own experience as an elementary school kid, I clearly recall the enormous outlet for emotions and energy I was given outside the classroom. Full disclosure: I went to a private school, but the lessons learned from that experience are applicable in a public school as well.

The joy of learning how to play with others, of embracing losing as well as winning as part of life's experience, have stood me in good stead ever since. I can recall as if it were yesterday how much I needed to understand what playing with kids of different skills and different attitudes means. In short, I learned the true meaning of teamwork and how to play by the rules. I'll admit it took awhile.

It wasn't easy. Especially for a highly competitive person such as myself. But over time, those early years climbing on the jungle gyms, wrestling with my friends, running against one another to see who was the fastest, shooting baskets was all a part of learning good sportsmanship. That took time and caring guidance from both teachers and parents.

Furthermore, those breaks from intense studying and classroom instruction enabled me and my friends to get to know one another better. We went on to form meaningful adult friendships as a result of playing together -- many of which have lasted until this day.

The topic of the number of physical education hours in school, has a much more important impact on our youngsters than it would seem on the surface. This is not a minor administrative matter. It is potentially life-changing and, therefore, demands the full and complete attention of every Westporter.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday.