After passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. schools began pushing for higher achievement in reading and math achievement. But as teachers worked harder to improve test scores, kids began spending less time exercising their bodies in physical education classes, at recess and in classroom games and activities.
A new study released this month found that 44 percent of school administrators report cutting significant time from physical education and recess to devote more time to reading and mathematics in the classroom since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
But reducing focus on keeping student bodies in motion runs contrary to a growing body of evidence suggesting that increasing students’ physical activity and fitness may improve academic performance in math and reading, according to the May 2013 report from the National Institute of Medicine.
“Even a single bout of exercise changes blood flow to important areas of the brain and helps children with cognition and memory,” said Harold Kohl III, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health and chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
Students need at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, and schools should take a primary role in seeing that they get it, the report said.
“When you think about it, most kids have contact with schools for 10 or more hours each day, including time commuting to and away from home, and before- and after-school activities,” Kohl said.
It's not all up to schools, he said — families play an important role, too. But schools can serve a center place for organizing activities and providing information and support, he said.
Even in schools that still offer physical education classes, students don’t get much more than 20 minutes of quality exercise during those classes, the report found. That doesn’t come close to meeting kids’ needs, according to national health standards, the report outlined.
There are no consistent national policies for addressing physical education requirements in U.S. schools; such decisions are made at the state, district or individual school level. The report committee recommends 30 minutes per day of structured physical activity in elementary schools and 45 minutes per day in high schools. But that is just a starting point for physical activity, it said.
Schools should also increase movement opportunities throughout the school day to add up those important 60 minutes of activity. That can mean encouraging students to bike or walk from school. It might include offering intramural sports before and after school. Giving kids activity breaks during their academic classes is also recommended.
Take a break
Schools are under tremendous pressure to fit more and more academic work into the school day, Kohl said. However, physical activities can be used to reinforce learning concepts during reading, math and science classes.
Take 10 is a program from the International Life Sciences Institute meant to help elementary school teachers incorporate lively learning activities into their lesson plans in 10-minute segments that are easy to implement. Suzanne Harris, executive director of the group’s research foundation, said the program has a 10-year history and is used with more than 1 million students in 47 U.S. states.
Ideally, Take 10 is used to complement a school’s existing physical education classes. But the program is used in many schools to help fill the activity void left when gym classes have been cut, Harris said. At participating schools, each teacher receives a binder filled with 10-minute activity cards that are grade-specific and tied to learning objectives in science, math, language arts and social studies.
First-graders learning about rhyming words might spend 10 minutes doing the “Conga-Line Rhyme” activity, a goofy dance that reinforces rhyming concepts. In a science lesson about seasons, they might act out a story that includes a character who jumps up and down in a big pile of leaves that have changed color, and skips home quickly because the days are getting shorter.
Schools provide health screenings and immunizations, and stress good nutrition, but those efforts are undermined if physical activities are removed from the school day, said Kohl, the epidemiologist from the National Institute of Medicine report committee. The evidence is clear that schools also need to provide physical activities for students so they can reach their academic potential, he said.