A new report issued today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and developed by two University of Texas at Austin professors, says schools should play a key role in ensuring all students have the opportunity to engage in at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity each day.
Harold W. Kohl III, a research professor in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, was chair of the IOM committee that wrote the report, and Darla Castelli, an associate professor in kinesiology and health education, was a member of the committee.
Recent estimates suggest that only about half of school-age children meet this evidence-based guideline for promoting better health and development. The report recommends that most daily physical activity occur during regular school hours in physical education classes, recess or breaks, and classroom exercises, with additional opportunities available through active commutes to and from school, before- and after-school programs, and participation in intramural or varsity sports.
“Schools are critical for the education and health of our children,” said Kohl, who is also a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health and a School of Nursing faculty member. “They already provide key services such as health screenings, immunizations and nutritious meals. Daily physical activity is as important to children’s health and development as these other health-related services, and providing opportunities for physical activity should be a priority for all schools, both through physical education and other options.”cThe report calls on the U.S. Department of Education to designate physical education as a core academic subject to draw attention and attract the resources necessary to enhance content, instruction and accountability. Although most states currently have laws addressing physical education requirements in schools, there are no consistent nationwide policies. The committee recommends that 30 minutes per day in elementary school and 45 minutes per day in middle and high schools be devoted to physical education, and students should spend at least half that time engaged in vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity. The report emphasizes that physical education cannot be the sole source of physical activity, and additional opportunities must exist throughout the school environment.
Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, 44 percent of school administrators have reported cutting significant time from physical education and recess to devote more time to reading and mathematics in the classroom.
A growing body of evidence, including several studies by Castelli, suggests that increasing physical activity and fitness may improve academic performance especially in mathematics and reading and that the benefits of engaging in physical activity during the school day outweigh the benefits of exclusive use of classroom time for academic learning.
A variety of physical activities that include aerobic and resistance exercises, structured and unstructured activities, and both short and longer sessions will likely confer the greatest benefits, according to the report. For example, aerobic fitness is linked to brain structure and function related to working memory and problem solving, and single bursts of activity have been shown to increase time on task and improve focus. Recess provides students the chance to refine social skills and use their imaginations.
The report indicates that along with a minimum number of minutes spent in physical education classes, students should also receive frequent classroom breaks, and recess should not be taken away as punishment or replaced with additional academic instruction.
According to the report, ensuring equity in access to physical activity and physical education will require support from federal and state governments as well as state, district and local education administrators, the report says. School systems at every level, together with city planners and parent-teacher organizations, should consider physical activity in all policy decisions related to the school environment.
The study was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies.