We Need More Than Mandates If P.E. Is To Impact Child Obesity

I hated gym class.

As a kid, I was an uncoordinated nerd with no athletic talent whatsoever. I loved watching sports, but I dreaded gym because I couldn’t swing a bat or dribble a basketball to save my life. My PE classes always focused on traditional competitive sports, catering to athletic students who are active anyway. They were the kind of activities that non-athletes like me dread.

So I wasn’t surprised by the results of our recent study of state laws mandating a minimum amount of PE per week. We found that specific PE requirements had a modest association with 8th-grade girls’ physical activity, but there was virtually no association between PE laws and weight change in boys or girls. Existing laws were designed to make kids attend PE, which is exactly what they did, and not much else.

Does this mean we should ditch PE requirements altogether? No, just the opposite.

PE reform isn’t about making kids show up to gym class – it’s about redesigning PE, and other parts of students’ education, to promote an active lifestyle in a way that all students will enjoy. This “whole-of-school” approach was the heart of an Institute of Medicine report led by the MSD Center’s Dr. Bill Kohl. PE should involve more than dodgeball in gym class. It should promote different types of activity throughout school, including walk/bike-to-school programs, recess, and activity breaks within class.

Many forward-thinking educators and policymakers are changing their curricula to include activities for non-athletes, such as dance. More and more, they are incorporating physical activity throughout the school day. For example, one elementary school in South Carolina designed Gangnam Style dance breaks during class.

Unfortunately, PE reform moves at a glacial pace. In 2007, Oregon passed a law requiring 150 minutes of PE per week for elementary school students and 225 minutes per week for middle school students. The law was a nice step forward, but they gave schools 10 years to implement it. Ten years?! That’s half a generation of children! Six years later, the state has made little to no progress toward implementation and there are even rumblings that there might be efforts to repeal the law before it goes into effect.

There is no question that academic demands often lead policymakers to cut PE and in the No Child Left Behind era, the pressure to meet these demands is all the greater. The irony, though, is that physical activity improves student cognition and academic performance. Teachers frequently comment that students are more focused if they have a chance to move around a little during the day. When it comes to meeting academic goals, schools should view physical education and physical activity as an ally, not an adversary.

The results of our recent study are not a sign that PE should be cut – they’re an indictment of weak existing standards and evidence that we need to shift how we approach physical education.

I say this as an uncoordinated nerd who is now a 7-time marathon runner: Anybody can become active once they find their niche, whether it’s varsity football, dance, yoga, or running 26.2 miles. Let’s redesign PE, so that all children can find a way to exercise that they love.

(This blog was published on September 25, 2013, for the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living)

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. My research has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR, CNN, FOX News, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets.

You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest off-the-beaten-path vacation destination (coming in July 2014 – Kyrgyzstan!!)


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