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Journal Issue: Childhood Obesity Volume 16 Number 1 Spring 2006

The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
Mary Story Karen M. Kaphingst Simone French

The School Physical Activity Environment

Schools are unique in their ability to promote physical activity and increase energy expenditure— and thereby help reduce childhood obesity.75  A comprehensive school physical activity program should consist of PE, health education that includes information about physical activity, recess time for elementary school students, intramural sport programs and physical activity clubs, and interscholastic sports for high school students.76  Schools can also encourage brief bouts of physical activity during classroom time—as in the Michigan Department of Education's “Brain Breaks” program and the International Life Sciences Institute's “Take 10!”—and walking and bicycling to school.77

Physical education—a formal, school-based educational program that uses physical activity to achieve fitness, skills, health, or educational goals—is at the center of a comprehensive school-based physical activity program.78  It is an important but undervalued curricular area that aims to help all students develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to be physically active both in and out of school and throughout their lives.79

Physical Activity Recommendations
Current guidelines recommend that children engage in at least sixty minutes of physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.80 The Institute of Medicine's Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance report recommends at least thirty minutes of activity during each school day.81 The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes a week of PE for elementary school children and 225 minutes a week for middle- and secondary-school children.82 Nationally, only 8 percent of elementary schools and 6 percent of middle schools and high schools meet these recommendations.83

Physical Education Classes and Barriers to Expanding PE
Physical education requirements decline drastically as a student's grade level increases. The share of schools requiring PE drops from around 50 percent for grades 1 through 5, to 25 percent in grade 8, to only 5 percent in grade 12.84 Although the share of high school students enrolled in PE classes appears to have increased from 1991 to 2003 (49 percent to 56 percent), the share of students attending PE daily fell from 42 percent to 28 percent.85 The quality of PE classes is also crucial to their effect on child and adolescent overweight. Only a third of adolescents were physically active in PE class for more than twenty minutes three to five days a week.86

Schools must fit many subjects and activities into the school day and must balance state and local resources, priorities, and needs for education. In recent years, however, the comprehensive curriculum has been eroding, especially in the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which focuses on student achievement in defined core academic subjects.87 As states develop or select standardized tests to hold schools and students accountable, content that is not tested, such as physical education, has become a lower priority.88 But, as noted, time devoted to physical education does not lessen performance in other areas and can in fact enhance both students' readiness to learn and academic achievement.89

Unstructured physical activity during recess allows children to have choices, develop rules for play, release energy and stress, and use skills developed in physical education.90  It may also help in the classroom. Uninterrupted instructional time may cause attention spans to wane as restless children have difficulty concentrating on specific classroom tasks. One study found that fourth-graders had concentration problems on days without recess.91

The SHPPS 2000 survey found that 29 percent of elementary schools schedule no recess for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.92  The National Association for Sport and Physical Education, by contrast, recommends that schools provide supervised, daily recess for students up to grades 5 or 6; that, if possible, recess not be scheduled back-to-back with physical education classes; that recess be viewed not as a reward but as a necessary educational support; that students not be denied recess to punish misbehavior or to make up work; and that recess complement, not substitute for, structured PE.93

Extracurricular Programs
Interscholastic sports programs, intramural activities, and physical activity clubs also keep children active in school. Intramural sports and clubs offer students with a wide range of abilities opportunities to engage in physical activity. But only 49 percent of schools offer intramural sports and sports clubs, and only 22 percent provide transportation home for students who participate in interscholastic sports, a problem for lower-income students who may need transportation.94  To help prevent obesity, the Institute of Medicine calls for partnerships between schools and public and private sectors to enhance funding and opportunities for intramural sports and other activities in school and after-school programs.95