Talking about: Boosting physical activity and student achievement through quality physical education

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August 25, 2011

Physical activity is vital to children's lifelong health and success. When children are physically active, they develop habits that will benefit them now and later in life. Physical activity not only decreases children's risk of developing diabetes and other chronic health problems, it can also increase their capacity for learning.1

Yet many children aren't active enough. Two out of three U.S. high school students aren't getting recommended levels of physical activity.2 And in California, nearly one in three teens is not regularly active.3

Improving physical education (P.E.) is one important way to help increase opportunities for students to be active. However, in the face of shrinking budgets and test-score driven legislation, many schools have scaled back on and, in some cases, eliminated P.E. entirely.4 Some low-cost strategies can help California schools reverse this harmful trend.

Why does physical education matter to academic achievement?

  • Students who are less physically active tend to have lower grades and test scores.5 Research shows that students who participate in 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days a week have better grades.6
  • When students do not get physical activity breaks, they have more trouble concentrating and behaving in the classroom.7
  • Physical activity can improve self-esteem, which is associated with higher academic performance.8

What challenges within California's P.E. landscape are contributing to inadequate physical activity in P.E. among students?

  • California's requirements for total amount of time students spend in P.E. fall well below national recommendations. The state requirement that elementary students get 100 minutes of P.E. per week is one-third lower than national recommendations. And California's requirement that middle- and high-school students receive 200 minutes of P.E. each week is one-fifth lower.9
  • California's P.E. classes often don't provide enough physical activity.10 On average, students in California get only four minutes of vigorous activity for every half hour spent in P.E. class,11 when national guidelines recommend that they be engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) (that which increases breathing and heart rate in amounts comparable, respectively, to that for brisk walking and jogging) for at least half of each P.E. class.12
  • Time allotted for physical activity decreases as P.E. class sizes increase, yet many schools have no limit on class size.13
  • Schools in lower-income communities report that their students -- a group already at higher risk for overweight and obesity -- spend about 20 percent less time being active during P.E. classes than those in more affluent schools.14

What can California schools do to boost physical activity levels through quality P.E.?

  • Provide a strong curriculum that effectively increases MVPA and meets state requirements for P.E.
  • Make sure students engage in MVPA for at least 50 percent of their P.E. class time.
  • Explore low-cost strategies such as using inexpensive or donated equipment (e.g. jump ropes) to increase MVPA in P.E.
  • Monitor activity levels using tools such as stopwatches or heart rate monitors.
  • Keep P.E. class sizes small so that they are consistent with other subjects and do not exceed 45 students.
  • Make sure teachers instructing P.E. are qualified and receive training opportunities.
  • Encourage community buy-in and explore funding opportunities by seeking partnerships with local nonprofits, hospitals, sports teams, and other organizations.


1. Chomitz, V., Slining, M., McGowan, R., Mitchell, S., Dawson, G. & Hacker, K. (2009). Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the northeastern United States. Journal of School Health, 79 (1), 30-36

2. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Surveillance Summaries. (2008 June 6). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -- United States 2007. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control. 57(SS04);1-131. Retrieved July 29, 2010 from

3. Babey, Susan H., Allison L. Diamant, E. Richard Brown, and Theresa Hastert (2005). California Adolescents Increasingly Inactive. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Retrieved May 21, 2009 from

4. Active Living Research (2007). Active Education: Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance. San Diego: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

5. Active Living Research (2007). Op. cit.

6. Coe, D.P, Pivarnik, J.M., Womack, C.J., Reeves, M.J.; Malina, R.M. (2006). Effect of Physical Education and Activity Levels on Academic Achievement in Children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 38(8):1515-1519.

7. Active Living Research (2007). Op. cit.

8. Coe, et al. (2006).

9. UCLA Center to Eliminate Health Disparities (2007). Failing Fitness: Physical Activity and Physical Education in Schools. Los Angeles, CA: The California Endowment. Retrieved Aug. 26, 2010 from

10. San Diego State University (2007). Physical education matters. Los Angeles: The California Endowment. Retrieved July 29, 2010 from

11. UCLA Center to Eliminate Health Disparities (2007). Op. Cit.

12. Strategies to Improve the Quality of Physical Education (2010). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved Nov. 19, 2010 from

13. UCLA Center to Eliminate Health Disparities (2007). Op. Cit.

14. Ibid.

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