Study Suggests Schools Lacking in Exercise Programs for
America's young children may not be getting enough vigorous physical exercise
through their schools' physical education (PE) programs, suggests the latest
analysis by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.
Briefly, the third grade children in the study received an average of 25
minutes per week in school of moderate to vigorous activity. Experts in the
U.S. have recommended that young people should participate in physical activity
of at least moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes each day. In addition,
Healthy People 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS)
set of health objectives for Americans, seeks to increase the number of schools
requiring daily PE for all students. (See objective 22-8 at http://www.healthypeople.gov/document/html/volume2/22physical.htm.)
Last June, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson released a report, "Physical
Activity Fundamental to Preventing Disease,"which estimated that 300,000
Americans die each year as a result of a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating
The current analysis, of school PE activities for third graders taking part
in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, appears in the February Archives of
Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
"Obesity and lack of physical fitness in our young children may set the
stage for diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems later
in life," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD. "President
Bush, Secretary Thompson and all of us in HHS are committed to doing more
to promote active, healthier lifestyles, especially for our children. This
study provides important information for parents and school systems to take
into account when devising physical education programs for children in their
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development enrolled just over
1,300 children at birth at 10 research sites throughout the United States.
The researchers conduct periodic observations and evaluations of many aspects
of the children's lives as they progress from infancy through adolescence.
The current analysis was conducted on information gained from direct observations
of the children participating in the study while they were in physical activity
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development is not a survey
of a representative sample of children in the United States. Rather, the investigators
recruited a geographically, economically and ethnically diverse sample of
children from across the United States.
The observations conducted in PE classes provided insight into the amount
and types of PE programs offered to 814 third graders at 648 U.S. schools
across the country. Observers tracked the activity of a child as he or she
participated in school PE classes. The observers used the following categories
to describe the activities in each class:
Management teachers' activities related
to preparing the children for an activity, such as forming a line or moving
from one location to another.
Knowledge teachers' explanations pertaining to the activity about to take
place, such as explaining the rules of a game.
Fitness structured physical exercises, such as calisthenics.
Skill Practice learning a skill essential to an activity, such as dribbling
Game play games or sports, such as softball or basketball.
Free play allowing the children to engage in unstructured activity.
On average, children had 2.1 PE classes per week, totaling 68.7 minutes. Only 5.9 percent
of the children had PE five times a week; 2.6 percent, four times a week;
16 percent, three times a week; 45.3 percent, twice a week; and 30.2 percent,
once a week. Of the average time children spent in class, 10.4 minutes were
spent in game play, 7 minutes on management, 5 minutes on skills practice,
4.8 minutes on fitness, 4.6 minutes on knowledge, and .7 minutes on other
activities. For each class, students engaged in only about 4.8 minutes of
vigorous physical activity, and 11.9 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical
The authors noted that PE programs vary greatly at the state and local level,
with allotted time for classes ranging from 30 minutes per week to 150 minutes
per week. Fears that increasing physical activity might have a negative impact
on academic performance are unfounded, according to the authors. Earlier studies,
published by others, had shown that increasing the length of time in PE classes
and the intensity of physical activity in the classes did not have a detrimental
effect on academic achievement.
The study also reiterated findings by other researchers that boys spent a
greater percentage of class time in moderate to vigorous physical activity
(38.3 percent) than did girls (35.6 percent). In addition to calling for more
vigorous PE for all children, the authors also called for improvements in
the curriculum of PE classes to encourage girls to engage in moderate to vigorous
The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical
research arm of the federal government. NIH is part of the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services. The NICHD sponsors research on development,
before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology
and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as
well as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD Web
site, http://www.nichd.nih.gov, or
from the NICHD Clearinghouse, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail NICHDClearinghouse@mail.nih.gov.