Exercise / Policy

My Body, My Mind: Physical Activity and Education in Public Schools

It is estimated that currently less than 50% of the nation’s children meet the physical activity guidelines put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These recommendations call for children to participate in at least 60 minutes/day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). Therefore, it seems appropriate on this, the last day of school for Hartford Public Schools, to discuss the Institute of Medicine’s recent report  regarding the role of schools in promoting physical activity and education for students.

NHANESThe Institute of Medicine (IOM) report briefly details the impact of  physical activity in children– the dramatic cardiovascular, metabolic, social, psychological, emotional and cognitive benefits–as well as the obstacles to providing sufficient physical activity during the standard 6-7 hour school day.  For example, financial and academic pressures often force school districts to cut physical education and unstructured free time (recess). The end result, according to National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004 data, is that only 42% of children and 8% of adolescents obtain the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.  Considering that  only 5% of adults achieve their recommended physical activity (30 minutes/day), it seems that there is a critical time period within which to intervene in order to reduce physical inactivity across the lifespan. 

The IOM report then recommends a strategy to rectify the dearth of physical activity in the school environment using a “whole-of-school” approach. This approach requires a unified effort by everyone involved in the school: teachers, principals, staff, parents, children, and district administrators. In brief, the “whole-of-school” concept involves:

  • A thorough assessment of the available resources necessary to promote physical activity within and around the school and neighborhood, and a willingness to invest in improving these resources
  • School and district policies designed to provide access to a minimum of 60 minutes/day of MVPA, at least half of which should be accomplished within the standard school day
  • Design and implementation of daily high quality physical education classes (30 minutes/day for elementary children and 45 minutes/day for high school children), of which half the time is spent in MVPA
  • Classroom time dedicated to additional physical activity, using innovative strategies such as active lessons that integrate movement into learning
  • Opportunities to promote physical activity before and after school, such as for transporation (e.g., walking and biking to school) and through extracurricular sports

The report concludes that to support these efforts at the school- and district-wide level, the federal government must make physical education a nationally mandated core subject so that it isn’t continually on the cutting block when academic and economic pressures challenge the time and money spent to engage students in physical activity. Education and public health agencies must develop better data-driven strategies to track and analyze progress made in promoting physical education and activity in schools.  Disparities among schools with respect to facilities and equipment need to be prioritized by states and school districts. And finally, colleges, universities and continuing-education organizations need to get on board by providing better training for teachers in all disciplines on embracing and promoting physical activity across the curriculum.  Higher-education institutions must also emphasize continued research into best practice for teaching and implementing physical education in today’s schools.

Picture taken from https://www.healthiergeneration.org/take_action/schools/Sound like a lot of work? It is, no doubt. But it’s far more work to treat the health problems associated with physical inactivity across the lifespan, so let’s get moving.

For more information, view the IOM’s video on the report, which is entitled “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School.”



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