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  • New Phys Ed Studies Say There's More Work to Do

    Despite concerns that US education policy over the past 2 decades may be squeezing out opportunities for physical activity in school, it turns out that average student attendance in physical education (PE) classes hasn't dropped since the mid-1990s—but then again, it hasn't increased either and remains below recommended levels. Those were among the conclusions in a pair of recently completed studies that also found public schools not fully embracing policies that could improve their PE programs.

    The 2 studies were conducted by the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance (NPAPA) at the request of the President's Council on Fitness, Sport, and Nutrition. APTA is an organizational partner of the NPAPA. [Editor's note: Want to learn more about the National Physical Activity Plan and the work of the NPAPA? Check out this video, and read the entire National Physical Activity Plan, a roadmap for community-level change.]

    To reach their conclusions, researchers looked at nationally representative survey responses. The attendance study focused on self-reported data from students, while the research on policy implementation was based on information primarily gathered from PE instructors. The study on PE attendance is an update on previous NPAPA research, while the policy study is a first-ever investigation into the degree to which schools have adopted best-practice recommendations from SHAPE America's Essential Components of Physical Education. The attendance study was published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport (abstract only available for free); the PE policy study was published in the Journal of School Health (abstract only available for free).

    PE Attendance
    Researchers found that the percentage of students attending 1 or more PE classes per week continues to hover at around 50%--more or less the same rate reported since tracking began in 1991. The latest data, from 2015, puts the average number of days a high schooler attends PE classes at 4.11 per week; however, nearly half (48.4%) of students reported attending no PE classes on average. Only 29.8% of students reported attending the recommended 5 days of PE per week.

    While authors of the study say that their findings challenged a recent Institute of Medicine report that claimed "political and economic pressures" on school systems were reducing PE curricula, they also acknowledged that, though relatively stable, the attendance numbers aren't good enough.

    "The prevalence of PE attendance among US high school students is still well below the recommended national guidance of daily PE attendance and is far from reaching the [Healthy People 2020] national health objectives," authors write.

    PE Policies
    For the policy study, researchers analyzed the degree to which schools have adopted the 7 policy recommendations contained in the SHAPE resource: providing daily PE; prohibiting waivers, substitutions, and exemptions; limiting class size; not assigning or withholding PE as punishment; ensuring full inclusion of all students in PE; and having state-regulated teachers endorsed to teach PE.

    The results were mixed at best.

    The good news: about 75% of schools said they didn't allow substitution of other activities (such as sports teams or marching band) for PE, and nearly the same rate required certified or licensed PE teachers. More than half didn't allow PE to be assigned or withheld as punishment, and just over 40% enforced maximum student-to-teacher ratios in PE classes.

    The less-good news: Only a quarter of schools prohibited exemptions from PE, and just 4% of schools provided daily PE for the recommended amount of time. A mere 0.2% of schools reported implementing all 7 policy recommendations, and about half (49.3%) were implementing only 2-3 policies. The findings also uncovered regional variations.

    "The findings of this study suggest that many elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States are not implementing essential policies to ensure effective [PE] programs," authors write. They identified the provision of daily PE, class size limits, and prohibiting exemptions from PE as the policies most in need of wider adoption.

    APTA Senior Practice Specialist Hadiya Green Guerrero, PT, DPT, says that the studies shine a spotlight on the gap between widely accepted standards and day-to-day reality in schools.

    "This study is a reminder of the overall lack of progress in improving the well-being of our children by incorporating more movement in schools," Green Guerrero said. "There are progressive policies out there, but these reports show that what's needed is more advocacy in our own communities for their adoption. We can develop any number of great ideas, but without implementation we'll continue to see an increasingly unhealthy population of children of all backgrounds."

    APTA has long supported the promotion of physical activity and the value of physical fitness. In addition to representation on the NPAPA and other organizations, the association offers several resources on obesity, including a prevention and wellness webpage that links to podcasts on the harmful effects of inactivity. Interested members also are encouraged to join the APTA Council on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Wellness to engage with a community of shared interest. APTA is also a board member of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity.

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.

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