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Lesson 6.9

P.E. and Athletics:
How does sweat and movement help learning?

The value of physical activity in education.

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Physical activity plays a big role in the transition to adulthood. Schools keep kids active through Physical Education (PE), which gives them more energy, helps improve concentration, and supports healthy interaction. There's more structure to PE than most people realize.

Physical Education can provide benefits in three main areas: Physical health, Academic Performance and Psycho / Social interaction. Childhood physical activity and fitness patterns often persist into adulthood. Physically active people need (and make) fewer visits to physicians, have lower hospital usage, and require less medical attention overall than less active individuals. To the extent that PE courses help students develop habits of physical activity, they contribute to a healthier life and a less costly American population.

Does your school provide kids enough PE time?

Here are the state requirements:

  • Elementary grades 1-6, minimum of 200 minutes each ten days
  • Secondary grades 7-12, minimum of 400 minutes each ten days
  • Elementary school districts grades 1-8, minimum of 200 minutes each ten days

The intent of these Education Code policies is to make daily physical education available in all grade levels and to require the equivalent of two years of physical education in high school.

Across the U.S. few schools offer daily PE classes (From Active Living Research Fall 2007 Research Brief, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Active Living Research is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports research to examine how environments and policies influence active living for children. According to their research, academic performance does not improve when physical education is sacrificed for classroom time. On the contrary, students who spent more time in school-based physical activity either maintained or improved their grades. Their scores on standardized achievement tests also improved, even though they received less classroom instructional time than students in control groups.

From Active Living Research Fall 2007 Research Brief, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In the following short clip John Ratey, author of the popular book Spark describes research suggesting that cardiovascular fitness improves mental fitness:

Physical activity plays an important role in mental health, too -- reducing anxiety, depression and tension.

Sports and Recess

Organized, competitive sports are not offered by all schools, and budget pressures have caused an unknown number of schools to drop their sports programs. This is a loss. In an article on the subject, education journalist Jay Mathews features a study by Mathematica Policy Research that shows "although math had the biggest impact of any skill on later earnings, playing sports and having a leadership role in high school also were significant factors."

'...although math had the biggest impact of any skill on later earnings, playing sports and having a leadership role in high school also were significant factors.'

In order to make more of the school day and mitigate the chaos and conflicts of recess times, some schools have opted to add structure to recess. For example, is a national non-profit organization that offers a structured recess program.

The Institute of Medicine serves as an adviser on health issues to the National Academy of Sciences. In a 2013 brief, the Institute recommends both state and local policies to integrate physical activity into school programs.

Presidential Fitness

In 1966, schools throughout the United States were required to identify their fittest students through the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, a series of physical tests of strength, endurance and flexibility. The program was dropped in 2012.

Students in grades 5, 7 and 9 are required to take a Physical Fitness Test (PFT) known as FITNESSGRAM, which is based on standards defined by the Cooper Institute. Yes, pull-ups are still part of the test, but there's no longer an award at stake — it's oriented toward health rather than shame or pride. The California State Department of Education collects data on the administration of the PFT.

Quality Counts

Of course, not all PE programs are automatically good PE programs. In 2018 a provocative study examined the unintended negative effects of a middle-school PE program in Texas. It found evidence of increased disciplinary incidents and reduced attendance. It makes some sense. About one out of five students report being bullied once per week or more, and the playground is a classic location for conflict to erupt. If they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, some students stay home.

Next Steps

The National Institute of Health and the PTA provide strategies to encourage physical activity.

Updated September 2017, March 2019


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 24, 2020 at 12:24 pm
Would like to see no traditional sports and exercise incorporated in to PE to be fit children who do not excel at traditional sports and lack the means to pay for team sports.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 13, 2019 at 10:03 pm
This is interesting. I hated PE. I wasn’t made for competitive sports and though I played softball, I dreaded it. But once a year, we had a series of focuses on alternative sports and fitness—high jump, archery, ropes, aerobics, gymnastics. I excelled at most of these, especially aerobics. Today I’m a serious yogi who’s devoted to health and fitness. I wonder how much those few classes had to do with my fitness today.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 12:28 pm
I'm old enough to remember the Presidential Fitness Tests. A few very fit kids might have been in favor, but huge numbers of us hated it. Perhaps because of the way PE was "taught" (and I am using those quotation marks intentionally) then, it did nothing to change the minds of those of us less inclined towards sports. I'd like to think that the PE teachers these years are better prepared to deal with the range of students and abilities than in days of yore.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 12:25 pm
I am under the impression that some schools are doing away with recess. I don't know if they also have no PE, but if you have no PE or recess, that really is wrong. I am very much in favor of recess (unstructured play -- monitored of course) but I guess if there is no PE, some kind of structured recess would be better than nothing.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren August 17, 2018 at 2:47 pm
Physical activity increases student mental capacity. PTAs can encourage physical activity without affecting instruction time by encouraging active transportation to school! Some schools do "Walking Wednesdays" or Bike Trains that meet at a local park and walk or bike to school together. Some schools use a charm bracelet reward, with a new charm given each time the student participates. Some schools use barcode tags from to scan students in when they arrive at school, which gives the student credit for their miles, and sends a text message to the parent that the student has arrived. Example:
user avatar
Deborah Najm May 3, 2018 at 9:28 am
I am disappointed that this award program has been dropped. We award all kinds of things in academics. Math, Reading, Science, Art - why NOT fitness? As people we all excel in different areas. Dropping this award removed a form of recognition for a population of kids that don't get recognized in other areas at school.
user avatar
Birdstomper May 3, 2018 at 8:24 am
This was an interesting lesson for me. PE was always my least favorite thing to do when I was in school! But this makes sense.
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 8:17 pm
The increase in frequency of ADD boys and decrease in recess play time is no coincidence. Play time for <8th graders is a necessity, but why is a PE teacher required? The play time itself appears to be therapeutic.
user avatar
debs2frogs April 28, 2015 at 3:49 pm
CNUSD in Riverside County - the teachers provide P.E., some teachers provide the required and then some. Some teachers do the bare minimum.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 February 18, 2015 at 1:24 pm
Does your school provide kids enough PE time? Take a look at the state requirements:
The physical education minutes required are:
Elementary grades 1-6, minimum of 200 minutes each ten days
Secondary grades 7-12, minimum of 400 minutes each ten days
Elementary school districts grades 1-8, minimum of 200 minutes each ten days
The intent of these Education Code sections is to have daily physical education available in all grade levels and the equivalent of two years of physical education required for high school
You can see the state policies on PE at
user avatar
TOBY BLACK January 21, 2020 at 7:05 pm
It looks like this link goes to a 'page not found'. I was looking for what the middle school PE requirements are for running (frequency and grading/time requirements).
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 22, 2020 at 2:56 pm
Hi, Toby -- Thanks for alerting us to the bad link. The state has a somewhat recently updated Physical Education Framework: More specific guidance is available for the Physical Fitness Test administered in grades 5, 7 and 9:
user avatar
jenfornal February 9, 2015 at 4:14 pm
I am curious to find out if other elementary schools raise funds to provide PE instruction or if the teachers themselves provide the required 200 minutes of PE instruction every two weeks required by the state?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 October 14, 2014 at 2:46 pm
A study published in Pediatrics ( Oct. 2014) boosts the research on the importance of physical activity and academic performance. Among the conclusions:
"Specifically, policies that reduce or replace PA opportunities during the school day (eg, recess), in an attempt to increase academic achievement, may have unintended effects. Indeed, the current data not only provide causal evidence for the beneficial effects of PA on cognitive and brain health, but they warrant modification of contemporary educational policies and practices, and indicate that youth should receive more daily PA opportunities."
"Given that health factors (physical inactivity, excess adiposity) have been related to absenteeism, the findings herein indicate that increased time spent engaging in PA improves both physical and brain health, which has broad public health implications for effective functioning across the lifespan.
"The randomized controlled trial, designed to meet daily physical activity recommendations, used behavioral and electrophysiological measures of brain function to demonstrate enhanced attentional inhibition and cognitive flexibility among prepubertal children."
You can find the report here:
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