Did the Death of P.E. in our Schools Lead to our Obesity Crisis?

I have written several articles on Education. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on education.

I graduated from high school in 1981, which seems like a lifetime ago. Even then there was a trend towards phasing out Physical Education. When I entered high school, which for me was 10, 11 and 12th grades. P.E. was only required in my sophmore year. I remember thinking this was a mistake. Since then it has been increasingly reduced and eventually phased out in most schools. This is due to budget cuts and financial considerations. I also think that when new schools are being built the cost of the land and building gyms and stadiums comes into play as well. Think of how much land is required for the school track, baseball and football fields and basketball courts. Not to mention all the equipment required for gym class and the salaries of the gym teachers. So it is no wonder why it has been phased out in many schools and school districts.

However, what has been the cost of this growing trend? We are telling children that it is ok to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Thanks to video games and now cell phones, physical exercise is now the furthest thing away from most teenage minds and lifestyles. Not only are children becoming obese, there is an increased incidence in teenage diabetes. Type I and early onset type II diabetes can lead to life time of health issues. I am an ICU nurse, and the vast majority of the patients I take care of are sick because of life style decisions that were made at an early age. Obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking are the leading causes of frequent and repeat hospital visits and admissions. Now thatnks to poor decisions made by our school systems and our citizens we are trying to undo the damage that has been done. I feel we are waging a losing batle.

Almost seven in 10 parents say their child’s school does not provide daily physical education even though experts recommend 150 to 225 minutes per school week

In a time of heightened worries that U.S. public schools do not give enough emphasis to math and English, a new poll released today finds that many parents are concerned about inadequate levels of physical education. NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) polled 1,368 parents of public school children in grades K-12 on a range of issues around education and health in the their child’s school. One in four parents (25%) said their child’s school gives too little emphasis to physical education, compared with  one in seven who say the same thing about reading and writing (14%) or math (15%).

In addition, about three in 10 parents (28%) give a low grade (C, D or F) to their child’s school on providing enough time for physical education, while almost seven in 10 parents (68%) report that their child’s school does not provide daily physical education classes, a recommendation included in CDC guidelines for schools. Just under two in 10 parents (18%) give a low grade to their child’s school on providing quality facilities for physical exercise, like playgrounds, ball fields, or basketball courts.

“In a period with a significant public debate about the content of educational reform, it is significant that many parents feel that more physical education is needed in the schools,” said Robert Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at HSPH.

These concerns expressed by some parents are shared by experts in childhood health.

“Experts recommend that high school and middle school students get 225 minutes of physical education per week during the school year, but in fact many don’t get that much,” said Dwayne Proctor, who directs the childhood obesity team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “Parents should let their state boards of education and their local school districts know that they want more PE for their kids, and encourage state and local policymakers to provide the necessary resources for full implementation.”

Currently, less than half of youths meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommendation of at least 60 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. This increases youths’ health risks and can jeopardize their well-being throughout their lives. Physical activity is also critical to children’s cognitive development and academic success.

NPR delves into the poll results with a series of reports airing this week and also available at NPR.org. Pieces from the NPR Science and National Desks explore schools’ efforts to address student health needs, including the effectiveness of later start times on the performance of sleep-deprived adolescents, reducing education-related stresses children face, allowing enough time for lunch, improving math and science classes, and career readiness.

Earlier this year the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, which concluded that schools can and should play a major role in both encouraging and providing opportunities for children and teens to be more active.

This poll underscores the need for many of the actions recommended by the IOM report, including:

  • School districts should provide high-quality physical education, equal to 150 minutes per week for elementary school students and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students.
  • Students should engage in additional vigorous or moderately intense physical activity throughout the school day through recess, dedicated classroom activities, and other opportunities.
  • Additional opportunities for physical activity before and after school hours should be accessible to all students.

The poll also found that a substantial number of parents in the United States do not believe the nation’s schools are sufficiently preparing students for future careers. Almost a third of parents (31%) responded that they do not believe their children’s schools are sufficiently teaching professional conduct and a work ethic, and 29% do think the schools are helping them to choose areas of study that will lead to a good job.

“In today’s knowledge economy, education paves a path to a good job, and a good job leads to better health by improving access to medical care and the resources to live in healthier neighborhoods,” said Proctor. “Schools need to provide not only the right curriculum, but also help students develop the skills they will need to succeed in work and life.”

Schools Cut Back Physical Education As Childhood Obesity Remains High

Study: Standardized Testing Pressure Takes Time Away From Physical Education

As a new report confirms childhood obesity shows no sign of diminishing, physical education is losing status as a priority in schools, says Pam Massey, professor of health, exercise science and athletics at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.

In many states across the country, schools allow exemptions and waivers from physical education classes, and funding for PE averages a mere $764 per school, per year, according to a 2016 survey from the Society of Health and Physical Educators.

“We see so many students struggling with the obesity rates rising and Type 2 Diabetes in younger kids rising,” Massey said. “They’re getting these health issues we typically used to see in older adults and it’s directly related to less activity and not eating properly.”

Rates of childhood obesity have been rising for decades. In 1999, fourteen percent of children aged 2 to 19 were obese, in 2016 that number rose to 18.5 percent, according to the most recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The benefits of physical activity are conclusive and researchers have found it’s not only good for the body, but also promotes self-esteem and can even sharpen concentration and boost academic performance.

That’s why Massey struggles with many schools’ current approach of prioritizing academics over physical education and activity.

In 2016, only 21.6 percent of children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 met the recommended 60 or more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity at least five times a week, according to the CDC.

“A lot of that is related to the standardized testing happening now,” Massey said. “A lot of the focus in the classroom is to prepare these students for those tests. Unfortunately PE is being cut because of that.”

In the last 5 years, 38 percent of teachers have seen a drop in secondary school PE as a direct result of exam pressures on teenagers, according to research from the UK-based nonprofit Youth Sports Trust.

“That’s the main issue now,” Massey said. “There’s so many different academic programs put on the teachers that there’s not enough time in the day. So the teachers unfortunately take it away from PE.”

But Massey says overloading students with a rigorous academic schedule without a break for physical activity can actually hold back learning.

“You see it in getting kids up and moving around, it helps increase their concentration, which in turn helps get some of those better test scores,” she said. “Where if you just have students sitting all day, not moving, that’s not good for anybody.”

Despite these cuts, Massey sees some improvements in the physical education being offered at schools — and also room for growth.

“A lot of the younger teachers … there is the push for physical activity and health,” she said. “So you’re looking at the student’s overall health and wellness. Traditionally, people just think of gym class as playing a game.”

That comes with teaching students from a young age that not only physical activity, but also nutrition, is important throughout their life. And PE class is the perfect setting for that, she said.

“Nutrition is key,” Massey said. “It’s starting to teach kids at the elementary-level what they should be eating, how much they should be having, what’s a balanced diet and listening to cues from their body.”

Then comes the fight to inspire kids who hate gym class to enjoy it.

Massey believes educators can do more to make physical education a more welcoming, and less competitive, environment for students.

“It’s important as PE teachers that when we create courses, to have modifications and different options for students within the class … let them work at their own pace so they can see some success and they can see themselves improving,” she said.

Massey would like to see schools dedicating at least 30 minutes to physical education three times a week. Part of that can be recess time, but those minutes have also seen cuts in recent years.

Gym Class Is So Bad, Kids Are Skipping School to Avoid It

Not only does P.E. do little to improve physical fitness, but it can also lead to truancy and other disciplinary problems.

It’s almost too easy to satirize physical education, better known by its eye-roll-inducing abbreviation P.E. From Clueless to Superbad to Spiderman: Homecoming, parodies of gym class are a pop-culture darling. Perhaps that’s because they speak to one of America’s fundamental truths: For many kids, P.E. is terrible.

A recent working paper focused on a massive P.E. initiative in Texas captures this reality. Analyzing data out of the state’s Texas Fitness Now program—a $37 million endeavor to improve middle schoolers’ fitness, academic achievement, and behavior by requiring them to participate in P.E. every day—the researchers concluded that the daily mandate didn’t have any positive impact on kids’ health or educational outcome. On the contrary: They found that the program, which ran from 2007 to 2011, actually had detrimental effects, correlating with an uptick in discipline and absence rates.

As for why this particular P.E. program was counterproductive, Analisa Packham, an economics professor at Miami University in Ohio who co-authored the study, points to bullying as one potential reason. Students are more likely to be bullied in middle school than at any other point in their academic careers, and P.E. presents a particularly ripe opportunity for abuse, whether because the class forces them to use a locker room, where adult supervision is limited, or because it facilitates the teasing of overweight or unathletic kids.

The paper posits that by subjecting participants—namely low-income kids, as the Fitness Now grants targeted campuses serving disadvantaged populations—to these circumstances on a daily basis, the P.E. requirement made students less inclined to go to school. “These adolescents were not enjoying the daily P.E. requirements and would’ve rather skipped school,” suggests Packham, who as an economist has focused her research on the outcomes of health programs. The Fitness Now program required that students participate in at least 30 minutes of physical education every school day. Schools that took part in the grant received $10,000 on average to help improve their P.E. programs by adding classes, for example, or hiring coaches and fitness instructors. They also used the money to purchase equipment such as stopwatches, jump ropes, and free weights.

According to the study, the program resulted in a roughly 16 percent increase in the number of disciplinary actions for each student. The study also found that the proportion of misbehaving students went up by more than 7 percent.

The findings of the study, which has yet to be published in an academic journal, are limited in scope. Still, the new paper adds much-needed nuance to the body of research that has evaluated the effectiveness of various approaches to P.E., complicating the findings of studies that generally assert the importance of school policies that encourage regular opportunities for physical activity.

It’s hard to argue that a given P.E. program is anything but well intended, particularly when considering that children spend most of their waking hours—and meals—at school, and that childhood obesity is a national crisis. But the kind of strategy taken by many of the Fitness Now schools may not be the most effective way to achieve the purported goals.

To be effective, a P.E. program typically needs to be multifaceted and holistic, suggests a 2013 book on America’s physical-education landscape that was co-edited by Harold Kohl, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. That might involve healthy-living and nutrition classes, parent education, and frequent opportunities for unstructured play—all on top of more conventional “gym class.” This may help explain why, for example, one 2012 study based on data from the National Survey of Children’s Health found that required P.E. alone generally doesn’t have any noteworthy impact on boys’ physical-activity levels or obesity, though it did have a marginal impact on girls’. Similarly, an earlier 2015 study on Texas’s Fitness Now program found it to be largely ineffective, resulting in slight improvements to kids’ fitness skills and having no impact on BMI or academic achievement.

The results of Packham’s paper on the Fitness Now program support the basic takeaway that the design of P.E. courses is what’s most consequential, and they hint at two interconnected factors that experts suggest tend to undermine the impact of such curricula. For one, P.E. programs often rely on a superficial notion of gym class—conceiving of physical activity as little more than a timed run around the track, for example, or a game of kickball—and this results in worse offerings. And then, when students feel forced to take these basic offerings, they may resent the classes more than they would otherwise. “Older kids have already formed these important eating and exercising habits, and changing their daily decisions is more complicated than just providing money for jump ropes,” Packham says.

Despite greater recognition of the academic benefits of physical activities—including guidelines from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressing that kids should get at least an hour of such activities a day—schools began to deprioritize P.E. about two decades ago, and the cuts have persisted in many cases, suggests Kohl. Accompanying this shift has been a movement away from casual activities such as recess, which experts argue is one of the more effective means of promoting children’s physical health. An immense body of research demonstrates the positive benefits of increased recess time, which schools started to cut after No Child Left Behind was signed into law, because of the policy’s emphasis on academic subjects such as reading and math.

Justin Cahill, a veteran P.E. educator who’s taught at an Atlanta-area private school for the past decade or so, stresses that it’s the typical application of physical education rather than the fundamental concept that results in bad outcomes. Until the past few years, P.E. classes tended to focus on kids’ acquisition of skills, such as dribbling a ball, and the fulfillment of universal benchmarks, such as the ability to run around a track three times within some specific amount of time. This approach, he says, “breeds stagnation and disinterest—the kids are like, ‘Yeah, this is ridiculous.’” It can also, as Packham’s study suggests, breed resentment: After all, in this “old school” version of P.E., certain kids are bound to struggle.

Cahill maintains that many P.E. programs are high caliber, successful in both engaging students and producing positive health and wellness outcomes. Echoing the findings outlined in Kohl’s book, he says that positive results are contingent on a multifaceted and holistic design—what he defines as programs that inspire children to exercise without realizing they’re exercising, that simply ensure they’re constantly moving, during recess, frequent “brain breaks” to get out “the sillies,” morning jogs, and, yes, regular P.E. class. Positive results are also contingent on experienced, empathetic P.E. teachers—those who know to modify a curriculum to meet a certain student’s needs, and to give kudos to that child who can’t run around the track. After all, research shows that people can get a good workout even when walking, and the more important thing is to create a healthy relationship with exercise that can last for decades.

Cahill’s own observations at annual conferences—and in his Facebook group for physical-education teachers across the country looking to exchange research on best practices and their own anecdotal advice—make him confident that P.E.’s reputation will improve in the years ahead. “I think P.E. is in a very good place right now,” he says, comparing it with the norm of earlier decades, and even of the early 2000s, after the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “Teachers are enlightened. The arrow is flipped.”

Still, even if P.E.’s bright spots are evolving into the status quo, both Kohl and Packham argue that P.E. has been scapegoated for public-health problems concerning children, including obesity. “It’s been a false flag that we’ve only looked at P.E.,” Kohl says, “when in fact it’s not the only way that kids can get physical activity.

“By making kids sit and be quiet and learn rather than allowing them to be physically active, we may actually be holding their test scores down,” Kohl continues. “We may be kidding ourselves by making kids sit in classrooms all the time.” For Kohl, the ideal P.E. program would still be five days a week—but unlike the Texas requirement, it would be more focused on building active recess periods into the day and include opportunities before and after school to, say, ride one’s bicycle or walk to and from school and participate in sports.

The Cost of Cutting High School Athletics

For one school district in rural south Texas, there will be no Friday Night Lights.

Facing a state takeover due to slumping student achievement, Superintendent Ernest Singleton has canceled athletics — including football — for the Premont Independent School District, which serves the town’s 2,700 residents. According to this terrific story by Christopher Sherman of the Associated Press, the Texas Education Agency was scheduled to assume control of the the district July 1. Premont won a brief reprieve, and is trying desperately to improve its shaky standing. Singleton intends to focus all of the district’s limited resources on academics.

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As the AP story makes clear, the picture is bigger than just disappointment and heartbreak for this year’s varsity players at Premont High School. The future of the entire community might well be riding on whether Singleton is able to save the district — one of the town’s largest employers — from closure. Frank Davila, a county constable who grew up in the area and also works as a school security officer, made this blunt assessment to the AP: “The school shuts down in this town, the town dies… This is all we have.”

We know school districts nationally are struggling on many fronts: to satisfy the federal academic demands of No Child Left Behind, to prepare students for the demands of an ever-changing workplace, and to continue the business of education despite significant cuts to education funding. All of those elements are factors in what’s happening in Premont. By eliminating the spring and fall sports schedule, Singleton estimated he would trim about $150,000 — a significant savings, given that the district owes $400,000 on a line of credit..

One of the ironies here is that there is no shortage of research showing a positive connection between athletics and academics. Studies have long supported the notion that participating in organized sports improves students’ attention spans, motivation and achievement. (For more on this topic, check out “The Case for High School Activities,” published by the National Federation of State High School Associations.)

When I told Keith Lee — chief operating officer for the National Consortium for Academics and Sports — about what was happening in Premont, he was disappointed but pragmatic.

“We recognize that academics have to be the first priority,” said Lee, from his office on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I hope that all other options were explored, because the athletic experience of children in high school is very important to the educational health of students. It goes beyond just being an extracurricular activity. It’s about character building and teamwork.”

Lee knows something about teamwork. A football standout at his high school in Gardenia, Calif., Lee played defensive back professionally from 1980-86, spending the bulk of his NFL career with the New England Patriots.

He also knows the value of academics. When he was a senior and quarterback at Colorado State University, Lee was elected student-body vice-president, the school’s first black student to hold a student government position.

While the AP story understandably focused on football given Texans’ legendary passion for the game, Lee said he was concerned about all of the students who would also miss out on athletic opportunities. The research in support of school sports is particularly strong for girls, Lee said.

“When young ladies participate in sports, they have a higher level of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth,” Lee said. “The experience of sports is beneficial beyond the scoreboard.”

Lack of health education leads to a rise in obesity rates

Raising a healthy child includes educating that child on proper nutrition and physical activity in order to grow into healthy adults. Poor nutrition and obesity continue to be a problem in the United States.  In fact, the most recent reports indicate that 12.7-million, or 17 percent of our children, ages 2-19, are obese. Unfortunately, despite these alarming statistics, formal health education in schools is lacking.   

The National Center for Education Statistics says for each grade from kindergarten through eighth, only 50 percent of all schools have district or state requirements for students to receive nutrition education. Only 40 percent have these requirements for ninth and tenth grades; and about 20 percent for eleventh and twelfth grades.  That simply is not enough.  The reality is healthy nutrition needs to be discussed regularly throughout life.  As adults, we forget.  Understandably, our kids forget.  

{mosads}And you have to ask, is the nutrition education that the students ARE receiving really healthy. The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, requires schools across the country to meet certain requirements for food and drinks served on campus. It was aimed at combating the childhood obesity epidemic. But take a look at the menus of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where my children attend school.  Fortunately, ketchup isn’t considered a vegetable anymore, but you will still find fruit juice on some of the menus.  Obesity experts and professional societies warn that fruit juice is not much better than soda.   

So is it any wonder that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The United States Department of Agriculture has taken steps in an effort to slow the numbers. The Smart Snacks in School regulation went into effect in 2014, requiring all foods sold a la carte at schools during the school day to meet nutrition standards, which limited sodas and candy bars in vending machines on high school campuses, at least during the school day. Although some are still there and open for business shortly after the bell rings.  

Nutrition is one part of a student’s health education. Physical education is also a must. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people aged 6–17 years participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. But that’s the problem! It is just a recommendation. There is no national mandate for schools to offer physical education.  So, the numbers are dismal and rarely achieve these targets.

The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 17 to 22 percent of public elementary schools offer daily PE classes. 22 percent of the elementary schools scheduled physical education just one day a week. And most of these classes run 30 minutes or less. What about older kids? The Centers for Disease Control reported that only 27 percent of high school students surveyed had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on all 7 days before the survey, and only 29 percent attended physical education class daily. 

Parents can’t assume that schools are going to teach their children how to make healthy choices that will extend into adulthood. Parents must assume this responsibility. The consequences of low physical activity and poor diet are simply too risky, with obesity being the first adverse side effect – leading to increased risk of developing, heart disease, diabetes or cancer, as well as premature death.  

Of course, health education in school goes beyond nutrition and physical education. Children also receive information about disease prevention, physical growth and development, and safety. As they get older, they will also learn about reproduction, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, and maybe even some first aid. HealthyChildren.org says the goal of such education is to promote healthy behavior and life skills. 

Childhood Obesity: Most U.S. Schools Don’t Require P.E. Class or Recess

Too many kids weigh too much, but too few states and schools require recess or follow recommended guidelines for physical education.

One in three U.S. kids is overweight or obese, but only six states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Illinois and Iowa — adhere to standards from the National Association of Sports and Physical Education that schoolchildren participate in 150 minutes a week of physical education. And just three states — Delaware, Virginia and Nebraska — have 20 minutes of mandatory elementary-school recess a day.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago analyzed results of a survey sent to every state except Hawaii, Alaska and Wyoming, in which administrators in 1,761 schools and 690 school districts were asked questions about physical education (P.E.) policies and practices and nutrition at their schools. Their responses were compared with information collected about state laws and school district policies related to P.E. and recess.

Those states and school districts that followed the guidelines were categorized as “strong”; those that recommended but didn’t enforce the suggestions were classified as “weak.” Most schools fell into neither category because they have no regulations whatsoever, according the research, which was published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

MORE: The Older Kids Get, The Less They Move

In the proof-of-human-nature department — unless you’re required to do something, you probably won’t — researchers found that the 4% of schools in the six strong states or districts were nearly three times more likely to meet the 150-minute recommendation. In comparison, 17 states and 29% of school districts were considered weak. Twenty-four states and 67% of school districts had no P.E. policies.

When it comes to mandatory recess, five states were ranked weak, and 39 had no recess law. Just 19% of school districts required daily recess, 17% required some recess but less than 20 minutes a day and a full 64% had no recess policy at all. That makes for a lot of antsy kids.

What’s more, researchers found a significant either-or effect: schools that met the recess standards were less likely to meet the P.E. guidelines, and vice versa.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that so few schools are embracing the exercise guidelines. There are only so many hours in the school day, and budget cuts and increased testing pressure means most schools decide that physical activity isn’t critical.

But Sandy Slater, an assistant professor of health policy and administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that’s a mistake. Other studies have identified a link between increased physical activity and academic achievement. “Increasing the amount of physical activity that kids have during the day is not necessarily going to hurt overall academic achievement,” says Slater.

MORE: Think Your Kid’s Physically Fit? Team Sports Don’t Offer Nearly Enough Exercise

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Kristine Madsen of the University of California, San Francisco, provocatively suggests that “lack of physical activity may be a far greater public health problem than obesity.”

It’s hard to argue that the two aren’t intertwined. To generate money to fund more P.E. classes, Madsen proposes levying a tax on sugary beverages and junk food, many of which are available in school vending machines. “The solution is not limited to the local, state or national level, but rather, the solution rests with decision makers at each level,” she writes. “We must work together to advocate for our nation’s greatest resource — our youth.”

Critical mass crisis: child obesity

Like a lot of cities across America, this one is hurting. The unemployment rate has reached 12.5 percent — that’s right, every eighth person is jobless — and more than a quarter of the folks here reside south of the poverty line.

And like many kids in many cities across America, the children of Marion are getting larger. And larger.

There’s a childhood obesity crisis in the country, virtually any expert will tell you, and there is no shortage of reasons: increasingly sedentary lifestyles driven by video games, television and computers; a fast-food society in which soda machines and greasy cafeteria food are ubiquitous in kids’ lives; and dwindling opportunities for exercise, particularly during the school day.

Put simply, at a time when every penny is being pinched by every school in every district in every county in every state, physical education is taking a beating. The experts and educators say there is no doubt that the erosion of P.E. has been a major contributor to the skyrocketing obesity rates.

And, of course, the more kids are unhealthy, the less they can exercise. This is their circle of life.

“The thing I notice is that the amount of time kids can sustain a moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is just monumentally lower,” says Pete Ellis, who has taught P.E. for nine years, the past four at Easterling Primary in Marion, a school of 800 kindergarten, first- and second-graders. “Something as simple as running two laps around the track — that can be brutal for kids. These younger kids, they do some running, some skipping, some galloping; and after a minute and a half, they’re ready to pass out.”

The childhood obesity statistics are numbing:

• 20 percent of U.S. children will be defined as obese next year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s about four times what the rate was in the 1970s. Using the body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of one’s weight in relation to height, obesity is defined as being at or above the 95th percentile based on standards established in the 1970s for kids who are the same age and sex.

• Between 1971 and 2006, the number of 6-to-11-year-olds considered overweight more than quadrupled — from 4 percent to 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• There’s a 70-80 percent chance that an obese child will become an obese adult.

• $14 billion is spent annually on child obesity-related health care costs, American Heart Association president Dr. Tim Gardner said during a recent press conference. Overall, annual obesity-related costs total $117 billion.

Equally startling are the numbers reflecting the state of P.E. programs in public schools across the country:

• Only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools and 2.1 percent of high schools provide daily P.E., according to a CDC survey. A study published in the 2007 issue of Health Economics stated that daily P.E. for high school students declined from 41.6 percent in 1991 to 28.4 percent in 2003. (The survey did not have statistics for middle and elementary schools.)

• 22 percent of schools don’t require kids to take any P.E.

• Nearly half — 46 percent — of high school students were not attending any P.E. classes when surveyed by the CDC.

The messages that undermine physical exercise for students are everywhere. Many schools don’t even have recess. Still others have P.E. for only one-third of the year. In most states, high school students are required to take no more than two years — and often just one year — of P.E.

In California, there’s even a disincentive for high school students who might consider taking more than their required two years: The schools in the UC system — UCLA, Cal, UC San Diego, etc. — do not count high school P.E. grades or credits when considering applicants.

The issues are particularly amplified for minority children. Hispanic and African-American kids display the highest obesity rates; as well, the challenges to implement stronger P.E. programs in lower-income schools are heightened by larger class sizes, less funding and limited facilities.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) frequently is cited as one of the chief causes for the current strains on P.E. Introduced by President George W. Bush in 2001 and adopted by Congress in early 2002, the controversial law placed added emphasis on core subjects such as reading and math, linking federal funds to the results of standardized tests in those subjects.

In the wake of NCLB, educators lamented the need to “teach to the test,” and administrators dedicated additional class time to ensure their schools met the requirements and avoided being labeled “failing schools.” As a result, time devoted to electives such as art, music and P.E. plummeted.

“The thing in education is: What gets measured is what gets done,” says Ginny Ehrlich, the executive director of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a non-profit organization working to battle child obesity. “If NCLB measured the numbers of times students pledged allegiance to the flag, it would all of a sudden become huge.”

The Alliance, formed in 2005 as a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, provides technical and educational support to more than 4,000 schools throughout the country, helping them create healthier environments to combat obesity. One of the Alliance’s primary concerns is the state of P.E.

Amid the alarms being sounded over the child obesity crisis, some states and school districts have adopted mandates requiring additional time for P.E. For example, in South Carolina, Ellis has seen the requirement triple in the past couple of years, from 30 to 90 minutes per week.

That would be considerable progress, except that virtually nobody can meet the mandate demand because the state provided no additional funding. So, it’s a mandate in name only.

Ellis recently attended a statewide training session for P.E. teachers. When, during the training session, the teachers were asked how many schools were hitting the 90-minute mark, two or three out of 100 educators raised their hands, Ellis says. His kids at Easterling get about 70 minutes per week — and that’s a lot more than many students throughout the country.

In New York, the state comptroller recently completed an audit of 20 school districts, and all but one failed to meet minimum requirements for elementary school P.E. classes.

And in California, a January 2008 report by The California Endowment revealed that less than half of elementary students were receiving the mandated 100 minutes per week. Throughout the country, the stories are similar. And what are the repercussions for not meeting statewide P.E. mandates?

“None,” says Dr. Toni Yancey, a professor in the UCLA School of Public Health and an expert in the area of physical activity among kids. “… If a school doesn’t improve, if it’s below average in its reading tests scores or its math test scores, then there are consequences for that school. They may be put on probation. They may have the state come in and take over — lots of things they don’t want to happen.

“If they don’t adhere to the number of minutes for P.E., there are no consequences.”

Conceivably, that could change soon. Last week, several members of Congress called for passage of the FIT Kids Act, a bill that would amend NCLB to add P.E. as a core subject and require schools to report on the state of their programs. Although there still would be no tangible repercussions for not making progress, advocates of the bill say accountability should put pressure on schools to improve.

Still, nobody is identifying where the money would come from to do things like increase time, decrease ballooning class sizes and ensure that elementary school teachers are credentialed to teach P.E. At the moment, that isn’t a requirement in some states, nor do many elementary schools even employ educators specifically to teach P.E. Which is why experts and educators say it isn’t unusual for the third-grader who gets P.E. once a week to have her teacher just toss out a few balls and tell the kids to have fun.

“Imagine an elementary school teacher graduating without any training in how to teach math or English,” says Yancey, painting an unlikely scenario. “But there are a lot who graduate with no clue how to teach P.E.”

Adds Yancey, “P.E. has been decimated.”

The National Association for Sport & Physical Education — a non-profit organization made up of P.E. teachers, coaches, athletic directors and other professionals advocating for physical activity — says students should receive 150 minutes of P.E. per week.

At Southwest Community Campus in Grand Rapids, Mich., some of the kids aren’t even getting 150 minutes a month.

“I mean, [150 minutes per week] is a great thought. It’s a great concept. I would just like to see how any school pulls it off,” says Amy Mabin, a certified P.E. teacher at Southwest, a K-8 school consisting of about 700 students. “… I don’t think there are any teachers in our own district, any colleagues of mine currently, that teach physical education more than once a week.”

In fact, some of Southwest’s students are getting no P.E. for a considerable part of the school year. Mabin’s kindergarten-through-fifth-graders receive 35 minutes of P.E. per week throughout the year, but her middle-school students are in P.E. for only one-fourth of the year, when they get 45 minutes four days a week. The rest of the time, they’re taking another elective such as art or music.

So for three-fourths of the year at Southwest, hundreds of kids in the throes of adolescence are getting no organized exercise at school.

In spite of the huge challenges, educators such as Mabin and Ellis, who also is certified to teach P.E., are making the most with what they’ve got. Ellis has helped supplement his P.E. time by creating a series of DVDs with him leading 5-10 minute exercise sessions. The regular classroom teachers play the DVDs in the morning so their kids can get an early workout.

At Southwest, where the harsh weather can frequently keep kids indoors for P.E. and recess, art teacher Karen Williams came up with the idea for an indoor fitness trail. Mabin joined with Williams, and together they created 12 stations within the three-story schoolhouse.

Williams says the trail was devised mainly to give kids an exercise option on days when recess has to be held indoors, but some teachers have embraced the trail to create exercise breaks from class. She admits, though, it’s a work in progress.

“It’s like giving a microwave to a great-grandmother,” Williams says. “It’s in the house but won’t get any use unless you show her how to use it.”

Physical Education Reform in Public Schools

As obesity levels and health issues are rising among young children and teens across the country, public schools are implementing new health and physical education programs to help prevent illnesses while striving promote wellness. Some studies report that the new health programs not only help children to improve physically, but a school’s wellness plan can also help students improve emotionally, behaviorally, and academically as well.

The Current Health Issues Facing Public School Students

Since 1997, America’s Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, has issued reports regarding American children’s health and wellness. According to America’s Children, one of the biggest issues of concern among all public schools and parents is the rising percentage of overweight children: “In 1976–1980, only 6 percent of children ages 6–17 were overweight. […] Most recently, in 2005–2006, 17 percent of children ages 6–17 were overweight.” 

Paired with this, Asthma is another disease, in addition to weight, that is a serious concern for American children. According to studies, “Asthma is a leading chronic disease among children, and rates of childhood asthma have remained at historically high levels since the 1990s.” Recently, in 2006, 9 percent of children suffered with asthma.” 

As schools are becoming increasingly aware of these issues, public wellness plans are designed to decrease obesity rates, while also helping students cope with specific health issues, such as asthma, diabetes, and many others. 

This TedTalk explains how quality, daily physical education in schools not only reduces obesity amongst our children, but it improves academic performance.

Revised Health Programs in Public Schools

Further investigating children’s health, America’s Children explains: “Children’s health is influenced by their biology, social and physical environment, and behaviors, as well as the availability of services.” While schools cannot wholly influence a child’s daily experience, schools are striving to increase their involvement by revising school physical education programs. Currently, North Carolina Schools and Ohio public schools are among two of the many states that are demonstrating focused plans for improvement. 

North Carolina Public Schools and the State Board of Health

According to research supported by North Carolina’s State Board of Health, public schools across the state are implementing mandatory physical education and recess programs to combat the many health issues plaguing young students. 

As the school board explains in its “Policy Manual,” the teachers and staff must seek to provide students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade with the opportunity to “participate in physical activity as part of the district’s physical education curriculum.” Included in the “physical activities” is an allotted time for elementary students to engage in at least 150 minutes of exercise a week while being supervised by a certified physical education teacher. Moving upward, middle school students are provided with at least 225 minutes of activity per week, which includes engaging students in both physical education and healthful living classes. 

According to the NC School Board, these physical education and health programs are being revised and implemented in order to “address issues such as overweight, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and Type II diabetes.” Furthermore, the School Board supports that “the physical education course shall be the environment in which students learn, practice and receive assessment on developmentally appropriate motor skills, social skills, and knowledge as defined in the North Carolina Healthful Living Standard Course of Study and foster support and guidance for being physically active.” 

Ohio Public Schools and Health Programs

Unlike North Carolina, Ohio currently lacks a state-wide curriculum for health and physical education. According to research supported by the organization “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You,” Ohio current has efforts for a state-wide curriculum underway; however, “in the short term, it appears Ohio will continue to have no common standards of health education — and no proficiency testing.” 

Despite Ohio’s lack of a mandated health curriculum, many smaller schools and districts are adopting “Wellness Policies,” based on information supported by various medical boards. Ohio’s Crestview Local School District, for example, has designed a “Wellness Policy” that is aimed to “ensure students at all levels can make decisions that will positively affect their lives […] Superintendent John Dilling says the policy had input from students, parents, and teachers — even a nearby hospital.” 

According to Superintendent Dilling, the district designed its health program to address the physical, mental, and social aspects facing kids in public schools. As such, Crestview Local Schools “try to provide students with opportunities to be involved in the community, to be involved in school and also address the physical aspects of it, which is their healthy eating habits, their physical well-being, and those types of things.”

This video describes physical education assessments in the Ohio public schools.

Why Public School Health Programs are Often Overlooked: the Pros and Cons

Among many possibilities, one of the potential factors influencing the rates of obesity and declining health in young children is perhaps the United States’ decreased funding for public school health and fitness programs. 

According to the American Heart Association, “Experts agree that increasing physical activity can help combat childhood obesity, yet many schools are cutting back on PE programs because of lack of resources and competing academic standards.” 

Ultimately, public school health programs are not only costly, but are also often pushed aside in order to better accommodate the demands of the more rigorous academic core classes, such as math, language studies, English, science, and so forth. While many schools are certainly aware of the pros and benefits of strong health and fitness programs, issues of budget, access to resources, and funding often restrict public schools’ progress. 

Parental involvement in the school district can raise the administration’s awareness of the importance of nutrition and wellness programs. By working with your PTA and voicing your desire to improve your children’s health, you can make a difference in the programs offered at your school district.


hsph.harvard.edu, “Poll finds lack of physical education in public schools a concern of parents.”; wpr.org, “Schools Cut Back Physical Education As Childhood Obesity Remains High, Study: Standardized Testing Pressure Takes Time Away From Physical Education.” By Mary Kate McCoy; publicschoolreview.com, “Physical Education Reform in Public Schools.” By Grace Chen; theatlatic.com, “Gym Class Is So Bad, Kids Are Skipping School to Avoid It: Not only does P.E. do little to improve physical fitness, but it can also lead to truancy and other disciplinary problems.” By Alia Wong; theatlantic.com, “The Cost of Cutting High School Athletics.” By Emily Richmond; thehill.com, “Lack of health education leads to a rise in obesity rates.” BY ADRIENNE YOUDIM; healthland.com, “Childhood Obesity: Most U.S. Schools Don’t Require P.E. Class or Recess.” By Bonnie Rochman; espn.com, “Critical mass crisis: child obesity.” By Mark Fainaru-Wada;

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