Setting the course right for physical education in schools

Voices for Healthy Kids

April 26, 2016
in Physical Education

Nearly everyone understands the important link between physical education in our schools and good health. The two go hand-in-hand. They always have. That’s why it’s troubling to see the ongoing trend over the past few decades in which physical education has largely been removed from many of the nation’s schools.

To shed more light on this challenge, Voices for Healthy Kids and SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators, just released an update to the Shape of the Nation report on the state of physical education and physical activity in the American education system. The report, which is designed to help inform physical education policies and practices, shows significant and sometimes striking differences in statewide policies regarding physical education programs in the schools.

For example, only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet the national recommendations for weekly time in physical education at both elementary and middle school levels, which is currently set at 150 minutes for elementary students and 225 minutes for secondary students. On the other hand, few states set any minimum amount of time that elementary, middle school/junior high and high school students must participate in physical education. For high school students the findings are particularly troubling, with only six states establishing minimum times that students must participate in physical education.

While nearly all states have set standards for physical education programs, those standards vary widely. Significant variations exist regarding physical education teachers meeting state professional standards, requirements that students participate in physical education, whether other activities are allowed as substitutions for physical education, and if students are allowed outright exemptions from physical education class time or credit. Investments in physical education also vary with the median physical education budget for schools in the United States currently sitting at only $764 per school, per school year.

When you consider that that 32 percent of the nation’s children and adolescents are at an unhealthy weight, and the majority are living sedentary lifestyles, these findings are incredibly troubling. Creating and nurturing opportunities in the nation’s schools for students to achieve the national recommendations for weekly time in and addressing the quality of physical education is one of the most cost-effective approaches to combating this growing health crisis.

Equally important, quality physical education in the schools is also a lifetime investment in good health in that students will be more likely to carry the fitness skills they learn and develop in school with them into adulthood. But as troubling as these findings are, they also offer a factual and statistical road map to allow health advocates to set the course right for physical education.

These findings, and the health crisis that is occurring among the nation’s youth, add a sense of urgency to an initiative we have embarked on. The #ProtectPE campaign is designed to unite parents, community leaders, and public health advocates around local and state-based efforts to strengthen physical education in the schools. Backed by science and evidence-based research, such as the Shape of the Nation report, the campaign creates a united front to protect and expand physical education in the schools. The efforts will be focused in states and communities hardest hit by the obesity epidemic.

Not only will a renewed emphasis on physical education help improve the health of the nation’s students, there is strong evidence that students who engage in regular physical education are better learners in the classroom. Take Naperville Central High School in Illinois for example. The school developed a Learning Readiness PE class, whereby the school aligns a physical education class with a student’s specific learning needs. For example, by scheduling physical education before math or reading class for lower performing students, the school saw significant improvements in literacy and math skills among those students who participated in the class. In commenting on this proverbial twofer, one of the creators of the class said, “Since we understand how exercise helps the brain function, we want to make sure that high school students understand how and why it helps them academically.”

Armed with the Shape of the Nation report, and with institutional examples like those from Naperville, Illinois, the #ProtectPE campaign will work to reverse the decades-old trend away from PE. With the grassroots support and strength of parents and community members, the leadership and resources of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the expertise and skills of a vast network of our nation’s leading advocacy organizations, the future looks positive for physical education programs, and more importantly, the health of the nation’s youth.


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