Not Your Father's PE: Obesity, Exercise, and the Role of Schools

By Cawley, John; Meyerhoefer, Chad et al. | Education Next, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Not Your Father's PE: Obesity, Exercise, and the Role of Schools


Cawley, John, Meyerhoefer, Chad, Newhouse, David, Education Next


American children are gaining weight at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of American six- to eleven-year-olds who fall into the CDC's highest weight classification for children has almost quadrupled. The fraction of adolescents in this category, called "overweight" by CDC rather than "obese" in an attempt to avoid stigmatizing children, has skyrocketed from 4.5 percent to 15.5 percent (see Figure 1).

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What may not be as well known is that physical education (PE) requirements in schools have been shrinking at the same time that the waistlines of America's school children have been expanding. From 1991 to 2003, the percentage of high-school students enrolled in daily PE classes in America plummeted, from 42 percent to 28 percent. Sounds like simple math: less time in gym class plus increasingly easy access to snack food and soda in school equals more youth obesity.

The solution seems straightforward. Medical, public health, and education organizations, including the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all called for students to spend more time in PE classes. In 2005 alone, legislatures in 44 states introduced bills to increase or reform school physical education. Alabama proposed hiring an additional 289 PE teachers in each of the subsequent 2 years. Kentucky, like several other states, would require 30 minutes of PE a day for its students. Maryland decided to hire a full-time state director of physical education.

Jumping through Hoops and Caveats

Requiring more PE seems like a logical response to the child-hood obesity epidemic, but will mandating more time in gym classes actually result in more exercise for kids? Will it help them lose weight? Surprisingly, studying the relationships between PE classes and actual physical activity presents some research challenges, as does judging the connections between PE and student weight.

To begin, requiring more PE does not mean that students actually spend more time in the gym. According to a 2000 study by sports researchers Ken Hardman and Joe Marshall, an estimated 26 percent of PE classes in the United States today fail to comply with state regulations. And even when schools do play by the rules, gym classes may do little to promote exercise. The U.S. Department of Education has criticized PE for too often consisting of "roll out the balls and let them play," unstructured and unmotivated class time involving little vigorous activity. One study of a county in Texas found that elementary-school students are vigorously active only 3 minutes and 24 seconds per 40-minute PE class. (See "Don't Sweat It," features, p. 30.)

Even that may exaggerate the impact of a physical education program, as students may circumvent the best intentions of state lawmakers. PE classes may generate an increase in exercise at the moment the class is held, for instance, but students may decide to exercise less at other times during the school week. And even if overall exercise levels jump upward, that will not lead to weight loss if students increase their caloric consumption. Evaluations of innovative PE curricula designed to encourage exercise suggest that PE classes do increase physical activity but have no noticeable effect on student weight. Still, relatively little research has systematically examined how much PE (as it is currently constituted) contributes to weight loss or lowers the risk of obesity, and what little research there is finds no association between PE and weight loss and obesity.

To investigate the matter further, we examined how differences in state requirements for PE affect the amount of time students spend exercising in PE class. …

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