Can Mandatory Physical Education Help Combat Childhood Obesity?

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In the United States, over one-third of children are either overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese puts children at risk for a plethora of physical health problems, including type-two diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea. Additionally, young people with weight problems suffer from mental health problems as a result of societal stigmatization.

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From http://www.letsmove.gov/, Michelle Obama’s Campaign to Fight Childhood Obesity

Currently, the debate over how to counter the child obesity epidemic centers around two main solutions: (1) changing the American diet and (2) changing America’s exercise patterns. One key venue for change is children’s schools, where kids spend at least seven hours a day. Over the past several years, efforts have been made to increase the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches in order to be more on par with dietary recommendations. However, as much as policymakers are willing to change the school food environment, they seem to be getting farther away from changing the school physical education environment.

2007 Rates of Overweight and Obese Children
From National Conference of State Legislators website

Federal legislation does not require states to offer physical education in schools, and therefore the requirements for school physical education are left up to each state. As of Summer 2012, only six states required their elementary schools to offer students the recommended amount of physical education. Kentucky, a state with one of the highest childhood obesity rates, has a mandate for high school physical education, but does not require physical education in elementary or middle schools.

Some legislators, such as Iowa Senator, Tom Harkin, have tried to create incentives within the federal budget for U.S. schools to maintain adequate physical education programs. Despite the best efforts of some legislators and physical education advocates, budget cuts seem to continue to push physical education programs out of the school day. While states and school boards around the country continue to focus mainly on improving test scores, they could be forgetting that exercise is good for the mind too, and that it may help their schools excel academically. Overall, physical education is a wise investment, and the recommended amount of physical education should be required in all public schools.

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2 Responses to “Can Mandatory Physical Education Help Combat Childhood Obesity?”

  1. mcdonsrun Says:

    I appreciate the comments in this blog over childhood exercise in public schools. I am a retired pediatrician and it has been very disheartening to witness the evolving epidemic in American obesity during my career in children’s health care. I do not think children get enough structured or unstructured physical activity/outdoor time. They need it! Although not as many calories are burned up by exercise as most people think, the physical break from the classroom is important. It is good for their brains/learning and for digestion, even social skills. Restrictions on funding for exercise programs and PE in public schools is bad medicine.
    Along with better nutrition at school and at home, physical education is part of child health. Cudos for your blog.

  2. tlucas11 Says:

    Although it seems intuitive that mandatory physical education in school would help decrease the amount of childhood obesity, there is literature (http://www.cmaj.ca/content/180/7/719) that argues against this. It is an extremely complex situation at best with elements of genetics, diet, physical activity, family, socio-economic status, neighborhood/environment, safety, politics, profit, and numerous others at work.

    I do not argue against mandatory physical activity in schools at all levels but perhaps the way in which this is approached is just as vital. Forcing overweight high school students who hate team sports to play basketball is probably not going to result in much change. A physical lifestyle class that exposes students to the multitude of ways to stay physically active seems to be better accepted overall (anecdotally at least, based on conversations with the phys ed. teachers at my son’s high school).

    In addition to more formal classes, I think the built environment and student scheduling can increase physical activity without so much dependence on an individual’s motivation. Don’t cluster a student’s classes all down one wing. Make them go up and down stairs all the time, from one end of the school to the other. My wife recently taught in a very large high school (3,000 students) – I know there are other factors to consider, but this seems a potential area where changes could make kids burn at least a few extra calories per day.

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