running children

Although most states in the country require schools to teach physical education, very few set a minimum time requirement and many allow students to either substitute other activities for PE classes or opt out altogether, according to a new report that examined physical education policies and practices in every state.

The 2016 Shape of the Nation report also found that many states allow physical activity to be withheld from students or used as a form of punishment against them.

“There is a large disparity in state requirements and implementation, affecting children’s ability to engage in and benefit from these programs,” according to the report, released by SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators, and Voices for Healthy Kids, an initiative of the American Heart Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The findings raised concern from health advocates who noted steady declines in physical activity among youth over the years as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems increased.

“It’s problematic because school is, at least for a good part of the year, a great place for kids to get physical activity in a safe and organized way,” said Steve Daniels, M.D., chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of physical education per week in elementary schools, and 225 minutes per week in middle and high schools.

But Daniels said physical education often gets drastically reduced so that schools can devote more classroom time to academic subjects or standardized test preparation.

“Unfortunately, that’s actually a misguided approach to improving performance. There’s ample research to show that physical activity during the day actually improves learning and improves focus for kids and ultimately improves academic achievement,” said Daniels, the pediatrician in chief at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Spending more time in their seats in the classroom may not be the path to having better standardized test scores.”

The 2016 Shape of the Nation report surveyed physical education coordinators in all 50 state education agencies and the District of Columbia.

“The benefits of physical education ring clear as a school bell,” said Nancy Brown, chief executive of the AHA. “With effective physical education, we can keep kids’ hearts healthy and their minds in gear to do their best at school every day.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Physical education is required among elementary schools in 78 percent of the nation, or 39 of 50 states. But only 37 percent of states – 19 – require a specific minute, hour or other time duration.
  • Only 10 states prohibit withholding physical activity as a penalty for students. Thirteen states prohibit using physical activity as a form of punishment.
  • The median physical education budget for schools was $764 per school per year.
  • More than half the states, 30, allow student exemptions from physical education class; just as many states, 31, allow students to substitute activities such as marching band, cheerleading, drill team, or intramural sports for physical education credit.

Carly Braxton, SHAPE America’s senior manager of advocacy, said while substituting participation on a sports team for PE may seem like an equal trade on the surface, students miss out on crucial health benefits in the long run.

A student on the football team doesn’t get the same benefits as he would from attending PE class “because all they’re doing is learning and training how to play football. They’re not learning about motor development, skill development,” she said.

“There’s also a health and nutrition component of physical education that they’re not receiving. And most likely those players, when they grow up, are not going to play football as a way to be physically active,” Braxton said. “The goal of physical education is to prepare students to be able to participate in a lifetime of physical activity.”

The Shape of the Nation report found that only Oregon and the District of Columbia met the national recommendations for weekly time in physical education at both elementary and middle school levels.

That may be because of efforts similar to the ones recently implemented at Highland Park Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon.

In addition to daily physical education classes, students taking health classes are required to take brief “brain boost” breaks that have them dancing to music videos, jogging around the room or engaging in some other activity “that gets their heart rate to increase and blood to move,” said the school’s principal, David Nieslanik.

All students also have a 15-minute period before lunch in which they must walk or jog around the school track or play a ball game or something else physical.

The addition of both activities has resulted in a dramatic drop in disciplinary referrals as well as increased classroom engagement among students, Nieslanik said. The outcomes are so popular that teachers have specifically requested that both activities be brought back for the next school year, he said.

“Our sciences and our math and our humanities and elective classes all said PE was the most important priority to maintain because our core teachers are seeing better performances in the classroom,” he said.