An Update from Dr. Jim Sallis: 20 Years Later, Physical Education's Role in Public Health


This communication is stimulated by the release of a journal article about physical education and public health that I want to comment about. But first, I noticed it has been almost one year since my last blog entry, so I want to mention a few things that have happened recently.

Moving universities was a big event for me over the past year.  I have been at San Diego State University since the summer of 1989, the same time the SPARK study began.  After 22 wonderful and productive years there, my research group moved to the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at University of California, San Diego.  I was so pleased I did not have to change cities, and even better, we did not have to move our offices from the walkable neighborhood we enjoy. Nevertheless, there are plenty of adjustments to make. We are confident our new work-home will lead to more and better research and use of that research to inform practice and policy changes.

In March 2012, I attended my first meeting of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. It was a pleasure to be part of a very strong health emphasis of the conference. Robert Ross from The California Endowment (a health funder) and Superintendent Tom Torlakson (former PE teacher and big supporter of school health) also spoke at the conference. In addition to my invited plenary talk, I participated in a panel on PE and health organized by Nicole Smith of SDSU. My overall message was about the need to make sure PE makes optimal contributions to children’s health. The audience was not only receptive, but many of them are committed to active and enjoyable PE classes. I want to recognize the leadership of Drisha Leggitt, CAHPERD Executive Director, who strengthened ties with health organizations but recently stepped down from her position.

In early May I attended the Weight of the Nation conference in Washington DC.  There were two especially notable aspects of the meeting for me.  One was that the new Institute of Medicine report, “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention,” made only three recommendations for schools, and the first was “require quality physical education and opportunities for physical activity in schools.” The IOM’s definition of quality is about the same as SPARK’s.  We want students to be active in PE class while they are achieving additional goals of PE–teach through activity. The second notable event of Weight of the Nation was that our Active Living Research Program was given an Applied Obesity Research Award, along with Healthy Eating Research and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was wonderful to have our program recognized for contributing the prevention of obesity, especially among children. You can watch a video here:

Finally I want to come back to the paper that stimulated this posting. Over 20 years ago, Thom McKenzie and I wrote a paper proposing that PE should be considered a public health intervention. That paper went on to become one of the most cited in the history of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.  Some of our younger colleagues proposed that we update that paper for the 20th anniversary, and we collaborated with several talented people to do that.

We found a lot to celebrate over the past 20 years, such as highly-active PE being embraced by the public health field, even including substantial funding by very large grant programs such as Community Transformation Grants, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The need for active and high-quality PE has increased with the childhood obesity epidemic, and there has been major progress in the development and dissemination of evidence-based PE such as SPARK. We found much room for improvement. Though several states are “requiring” specific amounts of physical activity in PE and throughout the school day, those requirements lack accountability and funding to achieve them. The PE profession has not fully embraced active PE as a primary goal, but we see progress toward this goal. You can access the abstract of the paper here:

Jim Sallis