Why Is P.E. Important? The Benefits of Gym in School

"We're raising an indoor generation," says longtime high school volleyball coach, Craig.

"Kids aren't cultivating a love for sports," he continues. "When school districts de-emphasize P.E. classes, you see it in the kids. You see a decrease in the quality and number of well-rounded athletes," he remarks. In fact, in recent studies done by NPR with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 56 percent of parents report that their children have physical education classes only one or two days per week.

My own first grader has P.E. for just 40 minutes on Mondays. On those days, he wears sweatpants and running shoes to school. "Do you wish you had it more?" I asked. At first, he says "no" because he doesn't like going back to class all sweaty; but then he reconsiders, saying, "I'd probably be better at baseball if I had more P.E." He recounts that his class time consists of sit-ups, push-ups, and, on "lucky days," dodge ball.

Lacking Physical Education

Increasingly, physical activity isn't a standard component of a traditional school day. Instead, it's become an event that parents have to rigorously plan outside of class time. Experts seem to agree that responsibility for physical activity ought to fall within the larger K-12 educational system and its regular school schedule — and not with after-school or evening programming that many children are unable to participate in.

Even more disheartening, widespread budget cuts usually target P.E., its teachers, and the larger fitness curriculum. Experts now know that physical activity during the school day actually makes kids smarter. It boosts brain function and improves health in a variety of ways. Kids who regularly exercise sleep better and have better immune system function. Furthermore, it may even help kids behave better — the benefits are clear.

Yet, statistics show that P.E. participation is waning, especially as students get older. Reportedly, only 29 percent of high school students are getting the recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity. In many upper grade curricula, P.E. is only required for one semester per year. Students can sometimes decide to take their four required semesters of P.E. in two years, taking no physical education courses in later years.

Fitting in Fitness

Like many parents, I try to compensate for the lack of exercise in school by having my son participate in a variety of sports, physical activities, and lessons throughout the year. There are days, though, when my kids get less than the recommended one hour per day of physical activity — especially in the winter months.

Extracurricular programs are one of the primary ways that parents and school districts try to fill the gap in physical education. Still, this isn't a comprehensive solution since many families don't have the time or resources to commit to evening activities. In my own case, I often find myself driving my kids to sports or a dance class each night of the week. When you combine this with planning weekend bike rides and hikes, it's no wonder I'd rather sit on the couch under a blanket when the polar vortices are upon us.

Moreover, these kinds of activities don't replace the benefits of P.E. in school. Coach Craig remarks that "club sports, non-school related sports, are great. But these kids are specializing. They're not versatile athletes. P.E. classes used to offer kids a chance to play a bunch of different sports and activities. I'm afraid that's lacking now."

Advocating for P.E.

There are many advocacy groups at work to make P.E. a vital part of national school curricula. These include Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative and the Carol M. White Physical Education grants. Both programs seek to combat obesity by promoting physical activity and nutrition for children and in schools.

There are also advocacy groups devoted exclusively to physical education:

Sources:

Physical Activity Facts. (2014, October 7). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from CDC.gov

Singh, PhD, A., Uijtdewilligen, MSc, L., Twisk, PhD, J., Van Mechelen, PhD,MD, W., & Chinapaw, PhD, M. (2012). Physical Activity and Performance at School A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality Assessmen. JAMA Pediatrics, 66(1). Retrieved March 31, 2015 from JAMA Pediatrics

Westervelt, E. (2015, March 25). Learning To Move, Moving To Learn: The Benefits Of PE. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from NPR