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Physical Education Under Pressure: A Note to Parents

Chiropractor in Burke, VAAt many schools, a renewed focus on “back-to-basics” academic performance and recession-era budget cuts have curtailed recess, physical education and athletics (both intramural and competitive) over the past few years. While there’s no doubt that school districts are being forced to make some very tough choices, it’s also very clear that high rates of childhood obesity and chronic health conditions among young people make physical education a cornerstone priority.

Why We Need PhysEd Now More Than Ever

Studies have shown that children who get sufficient amounts of regular physical activity each day are not only less likely to become obese, but show better attention and concentration in the classroom, behave better, and score higher on tests. However, the sedentary lifestyle of many adults has now trickled down to our kids, who are by and large less likely to be physically active at home than prior generations were. Not surprisingly, this is affecting their overall level of fitness. The effect becomes more pronounced as children get older and really comes into focus when they reach high school. A recent story that appeared on the U.S. News and World Report Health website (“U.S. Teens’ Cardiorespiratory Fitness Has Dropped in Last Decade: Report”) noted that “The overall percentage of fit teens went from 52.4 percent in 1999 to 42.2 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paints a grim picture. Perhaps the most telling statistics are the ones that highlight just how little physical activity most children get by the time they become teenagers. Here’s the situation by the numbers…

About Participation in Physical Activity by Young People:

  • “In a nationally representative survey, 77% of children aged 9–13 years reported participating in free-time physical activity during the previous 7 days.”
  • “In 2013, only 29% percent of high school students had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on each of the 7 days before the survey.”
  • “15.2% percent of high school students had not participated in 60 or more minutes of any kind of physical activity on any day during the 7 days before the survey.”
  • “Participation in physical activity declines as young people age.”

About Participation in Physical Education Classes:

  • “In 2013, less than half (48%) of high school students (64% of 9th-grade students but only 35% of 12th-grade students) attended physical education classes in an average week.”
  • “The percentage of high school students who attended physical education classes daily decreased from 42% in 1991 to 25% in 1995 and remained stable at that level until 2013 (29%).”
  • “In 2013, 42% of 9th-grade students but only 20% of 12th-grade students attended physical education class daily.”

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a very large gender gap in high school when it comes to both physical activity and participation in physical education classes:

  • In 2013, boys were more than twice as likely (36.6%) to be physically active for at least 60 minutes per day than girls (17.7%).
  • In 2013, boys were significantly more likely (34.9%) to attend daily physical education classes than girls (24.0%).

What Should Parents Expect From a PhysEd Curriculum?

As important as physical education is for a child’s development, the federal government has set no binding physical education curriculum standards and does not mandate the amount of time children must spend in physical activity. The government leaves it up to individual states and local school districts to decide on an appropriate physical education curriculum. Needless to say, this leads to a patchwork of approaches, some of which are naturally more effective than others.

The government suggests that children get at least 60 minutes of physical exercise each day to maintain optimal health and establish good exercise habits that will hopefully continue throughout adulthood. However, only 74.5% of states require physical education in school from elementary school through high school. In addition, 28 states allow physical education exemptions and waivers, and schools are required to allot a specific amount of time for physical activity in only 22 states. Only New Jersey, Louisiana and Florida mandate the suggested minimum of 150 minutes per week of physical education in elementary school. And for high schools, only West Virginia, Utah and Montana mandate the recommended minimum of 225 minutes per week of physical education.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses the importance of children having access to high-quality physical education. The national standards can be found in the book by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), Moving Into the Future: National Standards for Physical Education. NASPE suggests that a basic physical education curriculum should incorporate the following 6 standards:

Standard 1: Demonstrates competency in motor skills and movement patterns needed to perform a variety of physical activities.

Standard 2: Demonstrates understanding of movement concepts, principles, strategies, and tactics as they apply to the learning and performance of physical activities.

Standard 3: Participates regularly in physical activity.

Standard 4: Achieves and maintains a health-enhancing level of physical fitness.

Standard 5: Exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others in physical activity settings.

Standard 6: Values physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression, and/or social interaction.

What Parents Can Do

If you have school-age children (especially in middle school or high school), it’s important to understand the physical education curriculum and to encourage them to participate actively. This is particularly true if they aren’t involved in athletics or other physically demanding activities at home. Paying attention to the grade they receive in physical education classes and getting meaningful feedback from their physical education teacher can help you learn how your children view physical activity and whether they are developing attitudes and habits that will serve them well over their lifetime.

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