Family Matters

Childhood Obesity: Most U.S. Schools Don’t Require P.E. Class or Recess

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Too many kids weigh too much, but too few states and schools require recess or follow recommended guidelines for physical education.

One in three U.S. kids is overweight or obese, but only six states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Illinois and Iowa — adhere to standards from the National Association of Sports and Physical Education that schoolchildren participate in 150 minutes a week of physical education. And just three states — Delaware, Virginia and Nebraska — have 20 minutes of mandatory elementary-school recess a day.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago analyzed results of a survey sent to every state except Hawaii, Alaska and Wyoming, in which administrators in 1,761 schools and 690 school districts were asked questions about physical education (P.E.) policies and practices and nutrition at their schools. Their responses were compared with information collected about state laws and school district policies related to P.E. and recess.

Those states and school districts that followed the guidelines were categorized as “strong”; those that recommended but didn’t enforce the suggestions were classified as “weak.” Most schools fell into neither category because they have no regulations whatsoever, according the research, which was published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

MORE: The Older Kids Get, The Less They Move

In the proof-of-human-nature department — unless you’re required to do something, you probably won’t — researchers found that the 4% of schools in the six strong states or districts were nearly three times more likely to meet the 150-minute recommendation. In comparison, 17 states and 29% of school districts were considered weak. Twenty-four states and 67% of school districts had no P.E. policies.

When it comes to mandatory recess, five states were ranked weak, and 39 had no recess law. Just 19% of school districts required daily recess, 17% required some recess but less than 20 minutes a day and a full 64% had no recess policy at all. That makes for a lot of antsy kids.

What’s more, researchers found a significant either-or effect: schools that met the recess standards were less likely to meet the P.E. guidelines, and vice versa.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that so few schools are embracing the exercise guidelines. There are only so many hours in the school day, and budget cuts and increased testing pressure means most schools decide that physical activity isn’t critical.

But Sandy Slater, an assistant professor of health policy and administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that’s a mistake. Other studies have identified a link between increased physical activity and academic achievement. “Increasing the amount of physical activity that kids have during the day is not necessarily going to hurt overall academic achievement,” says Slater.

MORE: Think Your Kid’s Physically Fit? Team Sports Don’t Offer Nearly Enough Exercise

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Kristine Madsen of the University of California, San Francisco, provocatively suggests that “lack of physical activity may be a far greater public health problem than obesity.”

It’s hard to argue that the two aren’t intertwined. To generate money to fund more P.E. classes, Madsen proposes levying a tax on sugary beverages and junk food, many of which are available in school vending machines. “The solution is not limited to the local, state or national level, but rather, the solution rests with decision makers at each level,” she writes. “We must work together to advocate for our nation’s greatest resource — our youth.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.