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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 01/ 4/2010

Should kids take physical ed every day?

By Valerie Strauss

I don’t quite understand how anybody can argue that young people should not be taking a well-designed physical education class every day in school.

Yet that’s what’s happening now that two D.C. Council members have submitted a Healthy Schools Act that calls for, among other things, 30 minutes of physical education a day for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade and 45 minutes a day for sixth- through eighth-graders.

The bill’s sponsors have been criticized by some, including my Post colleague Jay Mathews, who say that there isn’t enough time in the D.C. school day now to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, science, etc.

Forcing schools to offer physical education would be, they say, a distraction.

They are wrong.

We are living in an era where kids (and adults) are fatter than at any time in U.S. history, when 70 percent of D.C. high school kids fail to meet the federal government’s recommended levels of physical activity and 18 percent of them are obese.

This matters on an individual health basis, and a national one too, as health care costs for all the diseases caused by obesity are skyrocketing and helping to strain the health care system.

Experts inside and outside of government have declared that the best solution to the problem is for more people to get more physical activity.

And, not so incidentally, research shows that physical education does not harm academic performance in students and in many situations actually improves it.

One study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s premier health agency, confirmed on a national level what smaller studies had concluded: that time spent in physical education seemed to improve girls’ academic performance. The researchers found no significant change in academic achievement for boys but theorized that a higher level of physical activity might be needed to get the same result because boys are commonly more active than girls.

Why would physical activity help improve test scores?

Vigorous movement sparks physical changes, including increased blood flow to the brain, that can lead to better concentration and less disruptive behavior.

But it doesn’t really take a well-designed study to come to the realization that it is the rare kid who can sit in class, focused, hour after hour, without a chance to get up and take a physical and mental break. A rushed 20-minute lunch doesn’t count.

I’ve reported on this subject for years, and have asked boys and girls of different ages whether they concentrate better after physical education. Not one ever said, “No.”

When I went to elementary, middle and high school several decades ago, physical education was a daily requirement. I didn’t much like it, actually, largely because it was all about competitive sports and I was no athlete. But even then I knew there was no way that I or any of my classmates could get through the day without getting outside and running around.
Even the dreaded square dancing that we had to do in sixth grade helped.

Today, unfortunately, only about 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education, according to the CDC. Twenty-two percent do not require students to take any physical ed class.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education
recommends that schools provide at least 150 minutes of exercise per five-day school week at the elementary school level and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school students.

The reality: Public elementary schools nationwide offer 85 minutes a week for first-graders and 98 minutes a week for sixth-graders, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The real question that we should be asking is not WHETHER kids should be getting more physical education but what KIND.

Some physical education classes are, not doubt, a waste of time. In some kids are left standing around for much of the time, or forced to play in a sport that does little to help them improve their personal physical fitness.

The trend in physical education since the 1990s has been to focus on health-related fitness skills so young people can understand the importance of cardiovascular fitness flexibility, muscular endurance, strength and body composition.

This is an education that I frankly think is as important for kids as is, for example, learning about solubility in science, or how to do a in-depth character analysis of Hamlet. But maybe that's just me.

Tell me if you think I’m wrong, in the comments or at How often do your children take physical education and what kind of a program is it?

Follow Valerie’s blog all day, every day, at

For all the Post’s Education coverage, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | January 4, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Health, High School, Middle School  | Tags:  health, physical education  
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Valerie - you're right - the need for physical exercise is perfectly obvious and already supported by research.

However, I'd like to see DC's effort carefully studied so we will have fresh evidence and not just a bunch of politicians and educators arguing back and forth. We have too much of that already.

Perhaps the focus of the research could be on effective means of implementation, rather than the inherent value of exercise for children, which is already well-known.

Posted by: efavorite | January 4, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Actually, I did feel worse after phys ed. I had health problems as a child and for several years I finished phys ed feeling weak, tired, and stupid. The weakness and fatigue were cured when my problem was diagnosed, but by then I had spent a lot of time being glared out by the super-jocks in the class when I missed the volleyball or being told by the teacher--who, being a woman, in those days had no other outlet for her interest than to teach phys ed--to "get out there and hustle. You're just not trying!" Even with good health, I don't like competitive sports, although a program than involved a lot of walking, jogging, or bicycling around the jogging track would have been tolerable. (Also, I seem to be amoung the minority whose brains do not emit endorphins in response to exercise--I have no idea what the "high" is that others report after exercise.)

In first grade I ran and played with my classmates at recess--tag, Red Rover, kickball, etc. By high school I had learnes to deliberately get in the way of the dodge ball so I could sit out the rest of the game and to avoid group activities so no one would be frustrated by my clumsiness. I would probably be in much better health today if I had not been discouraged from being a not-very-good amateur and individualist.

Oh, yes--I did learn a few other things. I learned to stand for a full period practicing the proper grip and stance in badminton, to duck when a ball came toward my glasses because the school didn't supply safety goggles (and my parents assumed the school did and the students never said anything because we didn't know they were possible) and to put answers on the test with one hand while keeping the other in front of my eyes so the teacher could be sure I wasn't looking on my neighbor's paper. For some reason, phys ed teachers were much more concerned about cheating than other teachers were.

Besides, aren't these schools that are supposed to offer more phys ed the same ones that are cancelling recess?

Posted by: opinionatedreader | January 4, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

So, the schools are now supposed to supply the correct nutrition, the correct amount of physical activity, the correct sex ed., the correct behavior programs, correct substitute parenting, etc etc, along with academics. Let's absolve the parents of DCPS students of any and all responsibilities while we're at it.

I don't believe that anyone is arguing that physical fitness is not important. However, just because we can all agree that physical activity is a good thing, has this proposed requirement been given enough thought? Or is it another feel-good proclamation from a couple of Council Members?

Do students who participate in sports or who exercise regularly outside of school have to participate in this program? Are there facilities to accomodate the proposed requirements? Are there enough qualified fitness teachers that can be hired? Is there money to hire these new teachers, or will other teachers need to be fired to make room?

Is there time in the school day, or will the school day be lengthened for this program? Will some other programs suffer in order to fit this program in? How will this program be funded? We're facing massive cutbacks and deficits already.

Stop preaching from a soap box unless there is a valid rationale, plan for implementation and funding source.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | January 4, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

I totally agree that phys ed should be a daily requirement at school. MCPS doesn't have daily phys ed (at the elementary school level at least), and I think they should. Physical health and growth is just as important as educational growth. Unfortunately, with all the competing priorities that schools have to face, phys ed will remain at the bottom until we're at a crisis point with the state of our country's health.

Posted by: detitta | January 4, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Valerie - I agree with you. Organized P.E. classes are a must for all kids, but especially for elementary ages. Not only is it for their health, but it also helps them be able to learn by stimulating their brains to connect in a variety of ways.

Posted by: lydandy | January 4, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Serious topic, really! I would hope that if this discussion continues, people would consider that phys ed does not only have to be SPORTS oriented; I detested P.E. for that reason. Think that aerobic dancing and other forms of physical workouts would make P.E. more palatable for many students.

Re detitta: "... phys ed will remain at the bottom until we're at a crisis point with the state of our country's health."

We are already there! All you have to do is look around at the large numbers of people, adult and children,who are wa-a-ay
overweight, for starters.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 4, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Yes, students should take physical education every day. Nothing is more important than health and safety.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 4, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

No. We must not have recess. If our children are to be doctors/lawyers/astronauts, we must begin thinking about these things when they are 5 years old; there's no time for such silliness when their entire futures are at stake. We must also ban the sale of baked goods by school clubs during school hours (so that some smug, self-serving DC school bureaucrat can pat himself or herself on the back for taking such a heroic stand against childhood obesity).

Posted by: rderrickwall | January 4, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I couldn’t agree more and am happy to see other editorials in WaPo that espouse the value of PE, physical activity and promote youth health and wellbeing. I also responded to Mr. Mathews’ piece last week and have copied some of that here to add more examples to your piece.

There currently is a multitude of studies that show the beneficial relationship between student health (physical, mental and emotional) and learning – key among these are the more recent studies that highlight how increasing PE, PA time improves academic outcomes even when academic classtime is reduced (Chomitz et al, 2009; Getting Results, 2008; Hillman and Castelli, 2009; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2007).

Coincidentally, the most recent edition of Educational Leadership ( published here at ASCD highlights the link between health and learning and many of the successful programs implemented by schools.

Current attention on PE should not be viewed merely as a health issue, as cited in Mr. Mathews’ piece, but as an overarching student-learning and school-improvement issue.

The major issue with many of our country’s failing schools is that they continue to do the same action – increase the amount of time students are required to do language arts and math – over and over again – hoping that by increasing the amount of time students spend sitting/reading/supposedly concentrating they will inevitably learn more. This, though, has been proven to be a false relationship and the concept a false prophecy. Students who are actively involved in their course of study, meaningfully engaged in what they are doing, encouraged to perform well, both in and out of the classroom, respected by adults in the school setting, and of course healthy perform better academically.

Merely adding more content does not solve the situation. We need to reconfigure how we teach as well as what we teach. Doing greater amounts of something that is not achieving results is foolhardy and counterproductive.

Walk into any school that performs well academically and what do you typically find? Students who are engaged in a range of activities outside of merely language arts and math including the arts, music, and drama as well as detailed and well-run PE programs.

Best regards,

Sean Slade, MEd
Director - Healthy School Communities

Posted by: SeanSladeASCD | January 4, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I would rather see my 5 year old grandchild have 15 minutes recess than to do standardized testing (which has priority and cancels recess). These little kids need some fresh air and exercise.

Posted by: mbrumble | January 4, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

rderrickwall, I truly hope you are being sarcastic.

Posted by: mbrumble | January 4, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

While we're copying things from Mathews' phys ed story last week - here's my tongue-in-cheek response originally posted there:

I think mandatory increased gym time in schools is a fabulous idea. Gym teachers can now be added to the list of teachers who are rated on the ability to increase student achievement, which in this case, means a decrease in students’ weight. Teachers who do not decrease their overweight students’ weight by 10% will be fired and replaced by young, energetic teachers who can do jumping jacks all day long. Teachers will also be evaluated though the school year, by master weight reducers who will rate teachers on their ability to keep all the kids hopping for the 30 minutes that the teacher is being evaluated and for providing differentiated exercises depending on individual student weight issues.

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will be praised for putting children first when she says: “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles. You can’t say, ‘My students watched too much television today,’ or ‘No one let them play outdoors after school,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t cook a healthy dinner and had to eat potato chips instead.”

Posted by: efavorite | January 4, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I see that none of the "let's legislate our way to physical fitness" supporters have any idea of funding or trade offs for this proposed requirement. It's easy to spout theory, how about some practicality?

Posted by: dccitizen1 | January 4, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Although daily recess and P.E. might appear to be a waste of time to some people, teachers and parents know that both have a very positive effect on overall health and learning. This applies to adults as well, and is heavily supported by research. In the simplest of terms, a healthy, active child usually learns more than an unhealthy, lethargic one. Adults who exercise daily often notice that they are mentally sharper after a good aerobic workout.

In my state, daily P.E. is the only subject mandated by law and for good reason. Thank you, Valerie, for bringing this important topic to the attention of your readers.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 4, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

I was forced to take PE in high school, and PE is an oxymoron. It has no redeemable value except for humiliating the fat kids like myself and further perpetuating jock social superiority. It is a gross waste of time. Let weight and health fall to the parents; when do they even have a responsibility anymore. It is not the schools job to enforce healthiness. I say let there be fried food and no PE; the parents can give their own children healthy food if they so please. PE is hell, its not fun, and it ruined many a childs social networks before they could germinate. PE only serves as a venue for jock glorification, something we do not need in the age of cheating sports stars and national idiocy. Let school be for learning, and maybe, just maybe, homework could be lessened so kids have time to play. Screw PE, may it rot in a total lack of peace.

Posted by: Brad_Matthews | January 4, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

I'd rather see physical activity be worked into students days in a less structured way than PE courses.

I hated PE. I hated the games, the uniforms, the public showers, the bossy gym teacher, the teacher's favorite athletic pets. There was nothing about PE in junior high and high school that encouraged me to live a more active life style because it was all about points and rigid rules.

My own children loved PE. By the time they were in school PE was a series of choices and one son took weight lifting three times.

I'd rather see schools and the school day designed to foster everyday movement and activity and not return to the days of forced "gym class."

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 4, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

In ES, I think that recess is a good idea. Above that level, there are many full-time athletes and those kids do not need PE. Period. Full stop.

I have never heard a convincing explanation of why a swimmer training 4-5 hours a day or a soccer player juggling 4 teams simultaneously needs PE. These are just two examples among many. I would be interested in hearing justification for PE for such kids.

Posted by: momof4md | January 5, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

@Momof4md: don't hold your breath waiting for any explanation. Council Member Cheh just wants to legislate this issue to death, and none of the people who are posting will stray from the "message" that physical activity is good for you. No shirt, Sherlock---we all know that doctors recommend physical activity----but discussing any practicalities of this idea seem to be way beyond the scope of this particular author (Valerie what's her name) and the PE boosters.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | January 5, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

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