Students who are physically active during school get better grades, even as nearly half the nation’s administrators have cut time from PE classes and recess in the last decade to focus more on math and reading, a new report found.
Some 44 percent of administrators have made the cuts since the passage of NCLB in 2001, putting students further at risk for obesity, says “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School,” a report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
“Physical education is the only subject area that not only contributes to student health, but also impacts academic performance,” says Jayne Greenberg, Miami-Dade Public Schools director for physical education and health literacy and member of a committee that worked on the report.
Children who are more active performed better on standardized tests, and showed greater attention and faster thinking skills than did children who are less active, the report found. “The results are there—we have to convince people that it doesn’t take away from academic performance, but rather enhances it,” Greenberg says.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department recommends children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. About half of this activity should take place during school, Greenberg says.
Elementary students should spend 30 minutes per day in physical education classes, and middle and high school students should spend 45 minutes per day, the report recommends. Only 31 percent of students attended a daily PE class in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To make an impact without drastically changing the school schedule, teachers can give students indoor activity breaks of about three minutes between classes. Physical education teachers should be trained to help classroom teachers implement innovative physical activities, Greenberg says.
This past school year, the Clark County School District in Nevada used funds from a CDC grant to train 200 elementary school teachers to give students “brain breaks” in between subjects. Teachers learn to lead simple activities, such as skipping in place or stretching, that engage both sides of the brain. And classwork can still be integrated into the activity—for example, students can spell vocabulary words while doing jumping jacks.
“We’ve had really good feedback from teachers, who say the students are more focused, and have fewer behavioral issues,” says Shannon LaNeve, Clark County’s coordinator for K12 physical education, health, and driver education. “They look forward to the breaks, and want to finish their work to get to one.”