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One-third of U.S. Students Do Not Spend Required Time in P.E. Class

A study by a University of Iowa economist finds a majority of U.S. schools fail to follow state mandates for physical education classes.

Only a third of the students in the survey were in P.E. class for the amount of time their state required. Professor David Frisvold says for those who argue increased P.E. requirements can help reduce childhood obesity, there are a few options to consider.

“Other states that don’t have these P.E. requirements could start to think about maybe this could be useful,” Frisvold says, “but states that do have existing requirements, instead of thinking maybe we should increase those requirement even further could also start to think about how to ensure compliance.”

His study found only 17 percent of kindergarteners and just 45 percent of fifth-graders spent as much time in P.E. as their state required. According to his calculations, if a state mandated 100 minutes of P.E. per week, that translated into just 13 minutes for kindergarteners and 40 minutes for fifth-graders.

The study did find obesity among fifth-grade boys was reduced when their schools offered more hours of P.E., but there was little change among girls in the same class. Frisvold says the evidence suggests the kids participated equally in the physical education classes during school hours. It was after-school time that differed.

“Boys seem to continue to engage more in physical activity, but for girls it was the opposite,” Frisvold says.

Frisvold suggests an extra hour of P.E. per week could lower obesity rates among fifth-grade boys by five percent.

“An economics approach to study this question is important because it’s a way of thinking about how individual behaviors change in response to policies and requirements,” Frisvold says.

Frisvold used information from an annual survey of thousands of U.S. students, and it included a measure of the Body Mass Index of each student as well as the physical activity of each kid. Two other researchers—from Cornell and Lehigh universities—collaborated with Frisvold on the study, which was published in the Journal of Health Economics.

In Iowa, high school students may be excused from the P.E. requirement to take an academic class. Parents in Iowa may also ask that their child be excused from P.E. A dozen states do not have any P.E. requirements for students.

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