Good News About Active Physical Education


To those of us at SPARK, and certainly to me, active classes is a hallmark of quality Physical Education (PE). A PE class in which students are standing or sitting most of the time cannot be a good PE class. PE is about teaching through the physical. The goal is to teach movement skills, teamwork, and positive social interactions, as well as improve fitness and promote the joy of movement by getting students active. Right? In my view, teaching facts about physiology, bio-mechanics, sociology, history of sport and other content is a lesser priority. If you can teach facts while the kids are active, that’s great. Otherwise, I would prefer the students learn useful knowledge in health education, which should have a strong component on physical activity and effective behavior change methods. Physical activity is the heart and soul of PE.

The Healthy People objectives for the nation have included goals for active PE since at least 1990. The health objective of ensuring at least 50% of PE class time is spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is specific and measurable. This objective, and others recommending sufficient quantity of PE, demonstrate that the Department of Health and Human Services sees school PE as an important partner in improving children’s health. It looks like these objectives will be carried over into Healthy People 2020. The rationale for these objectives is simple. Many or most young people are endangering their health by not meeting physical activity guidelines, and PE is the only part of the school day that can ensure ALL students get some physical activity. It is well documented that, too often, only a small portion of PE class time is spent in MVPA, so meeting the MVPA objective could help the health of millions of children. During the obesity epidemic, it is essential to use every opportunity to help kids be active, and PE is at the top of the list—again, because it is the only opportunity that can affect all kids.

I have been lamenting in talks and conversations for many years that I do not know of any national, state, or local educational agency that has adopted the 50% MVPA guidelines. For 20 years, the public health field has asked, encouraged, and begged education agencies to make sure kids are active in PE. NIH has spent many millions of dollars on SPARK, MSPAN, CATCH, Pathways, TAAG, and LEAP to demonstrate that active PE is feasible and effective in elementary, middle, and high schools. Yet for 20 years the education field has ignored public health’s pleas, and those of us in public health do not really understand the resistance to helping kids become healthier.

Here is the good news. The barrier has been broken. A ray of hope is shining that may mean public health and education can work toward the shared goal of adopting policies of 50% MVPA in PE. I heard a presentation of results from Bridging the Gap, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-supported research program. Bridging the Gap reviewed written school wellness policies in a national sample of schools. They reported what percent of students were in districts that had a strong policy to require 50% MVPA. A strong policy required action, had an implementation plan, and used words like shall, must, and enforce. To my surprise, the result was not zero. The number was only 6-7%, but it was above zero. This looks like a good outcome of the federally-mandated school wellness policies. However, now someone needs to check on whether these strong policies are actually leading to improved PE. Note that I am ignoring the 22-29% of students in districts with weak policies, because they don’t mean anything. Download the Bridging the Gap report on wellness policies.

These few districts are leading the way to healthier and higher quality PE. My hope is that other districts will follow their lead. Then state departments of education will decide this policy is worth adopting. Then state departments and districts will provide staff development, curriculum, and equipment to ensure all the teachers can reach this goal and the other goals of PE. Then perhaps we will meet the Healthy People 2020 objective, PE classes across the country will be more active, and children will be healthier. This is what we are working toward with SPARK.

Jim Sallis