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Schools Receive Poor Marks in Providing Physical Activity

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DALLAS -- Schools are not making the grade when it comes to physical education, according to the American Heart Association.

DALLAS, Aug. 15 -- Schools are not making the grade when it comes to physical education according to an American Heart Association scientific statement.

Public schools need to take a stronger stand against childhood overweight by resisting the trend to reduce physical education and recess time, said the AHA statement released online today in Circulation.

The statement cited "alarming health trends" over the past two decades as obesity rates have risen in children while enrollment in gym class and recess time have dropped.

"It appears that the time has come to consider a remarkably expanded role for schools in providing physical activity to our children and youth," wrote Russell R. Pate, Ph.D., of the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, and colleagues.

Although the AHA and other organizations have recommended that children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day, a CDC survey of high school students found that 37% did not participate in 60 minutes of exercise in an entire week.

Physical education classes are mandated in most states' curricula, but the CDC survey also found that since 1991 the number of high school students participating in daily physical education fell from 41.6% to only 28.4% in 2003. Only 15.5% of middle schools (grades six through eight) offered it daily for at least half the year while 40% of elementary schools required students to participate in gym class and 71.4% provide recess time.

The AHA recommendations for schools to take a leadership role included:

  • Ensure that all students participate in at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during the school day in addition to any extracurricular or community programs. For child development centers and elementary schools, this may mean providing children with at least 30 minutes of recess.
  • Provide evidence-based, health-related physical education programs in which a substantial portion of class time is spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
  • Expand physical activity opportunities with clubs, lessons, intramural sports, and non-competitive sports programs in order to meet the needs and interests of all students.
  • Promote walking and bicycling to school.
  • Provide evidence-based health education emphasizing behavioral skills to increase physical activity and decrease sedentary behaviors.

The recommendations for states and school districts included:

  • Ensure that physical education is taught by certified and highly qualified physical education teachers at all school levels.
  • Hold schools accountable for providing physical education that meets national standards for quality and quantity, which means 150 minutes per weeks for elementary and middle school students and 225 minutes a week for high school students.

School districts across the nation have come under pressure to allocate more of the school day to subjects on state-mandated standardized tests, especially since the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that increases accountability for scores.

However, "studies have shown no meaningful relationship exists between time allocated for physical education and academic achievement," Dr. Pate and colleagues wrote.

To reduce the likelihood that schools or school districts would cut time for physical activity, the AHA statement also recommended that the states include physical education in the accountability systems along with other "core" subjects like math and reading.

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