The new study from Institute of the National Academies might have schools rethinking their cuts to physical education programs. The report, titled Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, finds that increasing the students’ level of physical activity during the day not only makes for happier students but also improves their grades.
The conclusions of the study are a wake up call because in many cases, schools have cut physical activity programs – and even recess – specifically because they needed the extra time for academics. Yet according to the Institute’s Food and Nutrition Board, which authored the study, keeping phys ed might have paid better dividends.
Extensive scientific evidence demonstrates that regular physical activity promotes growth and development in youth and has multiple benefits for physical, mental, and cognitive health. Physical activity is related to lower body fat, greater muscular strength, stronger bones, and improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as to improvements in mental health by reducing and preventing conditions such as anxiety and depression and enhancing self-esteem.
In addition, previous studies have shown that students learn better when they’ve had an opportunity to get physical during the day. Their concentration improves, they absorb and process information more efficiently, and they even get better scores on standardized tests than their peers who sit in the classroom all day.
For many students, physical education offered by their schools is their chief means of getting exercise. The authors claim that without well-designed physical education classes, many kids would lead almost completely sedentary lives. It would seem, with all that is at stake, adding back phys ed would be a no-brainer.
But even educators and school leaders who support adding more physical activity to the curriculum might feel like their hands are tied. In addition to the adoption of more rigorous standards – which require more learning hours – the schools are also limited by years of budget cuts that had them paring down everything that wasn’t mandated by law, including gym.
Schools traditionally have used physical education as their primary means of promoting physical activity. But they face challenges in continuing to deliver it both equitably and effectively. Fiscal pressures, resulting in teacher layoffs or reassignments and a lack of equipment and other resources, inhibit the offering of quality physical education in some schools and districts. Safety concerns associated with allowing children to play sometimes pose barriers. Policy pressures, such as a demand for raising standardized test scores through increased classroom contact time, further challenge schools to spend time providing physical activity for youth. Also, even under the best of circumstances, physical education classes are likely to provide only 10-20 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity per session.