As many schools eliminate physical education classes, even while childhood obesity and diabetes rates skyrocket in this country, a national study published today in the American Journal of Public Health finds that state laws that require schools to offer PE for a specific amount of time help  ensure that daily physical activity recommendations among children are met.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that children receive a minimum of 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Recognizing that children spend most of their day at school, PE provides a natural opportunity for children to obtain a significant portion of the recommended physical activity, the study’s authors stated.

girls jumping rope in gym class

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Researchers examined whether or not public schools in states with specific and stringent physical education laws reported more weekly PE time in the most recent School Health Policies and Programs Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the 410 schools examined, researchers found that schools in states with strong laws, or those with specific requirements, averaged over 27 and 60 more PE minutes per week at the elementary school and middle school levels, respectively, compared with schools in states with nonspecific, or weak, laws. Compared with elementary and middle schools with no PE laws or requirements, they found that the schools in states with strong  PE laws averaged over 40 and 60 more minutes a week respectively. 

“Decline in physical activity is most pronounced as children transition from elementary and middle school to high school,” the authors wrote. “Similarly, there is an increase in sedentary behavior as children transition from primary to secondary school. ….Children do not compensate for less PE in school by adding physical activity outside of school, and PE may an important contributor to overall physical activity… [since] average PE time is below school health guidelines.”

The study concludes that codified state PE laws among U.S. elementary and middle schools should both require and specify a minimum amount of PE to address current school health guidelines and gaps in physical activity among children.

See related AJPH study:
“Public health interventions for addressing childhood overweight: analysis of the business case”