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Physical education should be a ‘core’ subject: Institute of Medicine

A new report by the prestigious Institute of Medicine says that the U.S. Education Department should designate physical education as a core subject, just like math and English, to help confront a “pandemic” of physical inactivity that has contributed to a critical national health challenge.

The report, titled “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School,” says that even though quality physical education has been shown to be beneficial to students, it has become increasingly difficult for schools to provide it. The authors cite as obstacles budget cuts — which have resulted in teacher layoffs and a lack of equipment and other resources — as well as policy pressures that have led schools to increase classroom time for standardized test preparation.

Nearly half (44 percent) of school administrators report cutting significant amounts of time from physical education, arts, and recess to increase time in reading and mathematics since passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. These challenges have been cited as the reasons why the percentage of schools offering physical education daily or at least 3 days each week declined dramatically in U.S. schools between 2000 and 2006.

It also says that factors leading to increased inactivity include

 increased reliance on nonactive transportation, automation of activities of daily living, and greater opportunities for sedentary behavior.

While definitive data are not available, it says, the best estimate is that only about half of young people in the United States meet the current guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity daily.

The report was issued by the U.S. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which was chartered in 1863 and has expanded into what is collectively known as the National Academies, which comprises the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

It says that schools should provide at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for students, including an average of 30 minutes each day in phys ed class for all elementary school students and an average of 45 minutes per day for all middle- and high-school students.

The consequences of inactivity are very real, the report says.

A lack of activity increases the risk of heart disease, colon and breast cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, and other diseases. Recent studies have found that in terms of mortality, the global population health burden of physical inactivity approaches that of cigarette smoking and obesity. Indeed, the prevalence of physical inactivity, along with this substantial associated disease risk, has been described as a pandemic.

The report says the Department of Education should designate physical education as a “core subject,” saying that

Physical education in school is the only sure opportunity for all school-aged students to access health-enhancing physical activity and the only school subject area that provides education to ensure that students develop knowledge, skills,  and motivation to engage in health-enhancing physical activity for life.

Here are all of the recommendations, taken from proofs of the report:

* Recommendation 1: District and school administrators, teachers, and parents should advocate for and create a whole-of-school approach to physical activity that fosters and provides access in the school environment to at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity more than half (>50 percent) of which should be accomplished during regular school hours.


— School districts should provide high-quality curricular physical education during which the students should spend at least half (≥50 percent) of the class-time engaged in vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity. All elementary school students should spend an average of 30 minutes per day and all middle and high school students an average of 45 minutes per day in physical education class. To allow for flexibility in curriculum scheduling, this recommendation is equivalent to 150 minutes per week for elementary school students  and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students.


— Students should engage in additional vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the school day through recess, dedicated classroom physical activity time, and other opportunities.


–Additional opportunities for physical activity before and after school hours, including but not limited to active transport, before- and afterschool programming, and intramural and extramural sports, should be made accessible to all students.


* Recommendation 2: Federal and state governments, school systems at all levels (state, district, and local), city governments and city planners, and parent–teacher organizations should systematically consider access to and provision of physical activity in all policy decisions related to the school environment as a contributing factor to improving academic performance, health, and development for all children.


* Recommendation 3: Because physical education is foundational for lifelong health and learning, the U.S. Department of Education should designate physical education as a core subject.


* Recommendation 4: Education and public health agencies at all government levels (federal, state, and local) should develop and systematically deploy data systems to monitor policies and behaviors pertaining to physical activity and physical education in the school setting, so as to provide a foundation for policy and program planning, development, implementation, and assessment.


* Recommendation 5: Colleges and universities and continuing education programs should provide preservice training and ongoing professional development opportunities for K-12 classroom and physical education teachers to enable them to embrace and promote physical activity across the curriculum.


* Recommendation 6: Federal, state, district, and local education administrators should ensure that programs and policies at all levels address existing disparities in physical activity and that all students at all schools have equal access to appropriate facilities and opportunities for physical activity and quality physical education.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · May 25, 2013

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