Have Physical Education Policies in Schools Helped to Combat Childhood Obesity?

By Drew Terry – August 1, 2023

A 2023 study co-authored by Paul von Hippel, a professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, investigated the impact of state laws and policies on physical education and physical activity in elementary schools and their association with obesity in children. Several leading medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Heart Association (AHA), and Institute of Medicine (IOM), have recommended increasing children’s time spent in physical education and other school-based physical activity to combat obesity. However, a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine article challenged the notion that physical education classes alone reduce obesity.

The researchers analyzed the effects of state laws on physical education and physical activity time, BMI, overweight, and obesity in children. They collected data on state laws from 1998 to 2016 and merged it with data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies of the Kindergarten Classes of 1998–1999 (ECLS-K:1999) and 2010–2011 (ECLS-K:2011). The analysis covered 13,920 students in 3,000 schools.

Results from the Study

Results indicated that despite enacting laws to increase physical education and physical activity time in elementary schools, schools did not comply with these requirements. Moreover, state laws did not significantly affect BMI, overweight, or obesity in children. Even when the required or recommended physical education/physical activity time increased, children’s time in physical education or recess decreased or remained unchanged. The study suggested that schools may have needed help implementing state physical education and physical activity policies effectively due to scheduling challenges and a lack of precise guidance.

The research also highlighted that even if schools fully complied with the laws and increased physical education time to the recommended 150 minutes per week, the impact on obesity would be minimal. This was because the overall energy expenditure from increased physical education time was relatively small compared to the energy imbalance that led to the obesity epidemic, primarily caused by increased calorie consumption rather than reduced physical activity.

The study concluded that school-based physical activity policies alone might not be sufficient to combat the obesity epidemic and suggested that interventions targeting both consumption and physical activity outside of school would likely be more effective. The researchers recommended considering alternative strategies to increase the intensity of physical education programs and adopt comprehensive approaches that address both dietary habits and activity levels at school and beyond.

Overall, the study provided valuable insights into the effectiveness of state physical education and physical activity policies and their impact on childhood obesity, highlighting the need for multifaceted and comprehensive interventions to address this critical public health issue.

Looking to the Future

So where does this leave us? How do we address the increasing numbers of obese children? Obviously the quality and quantity of food consumption has a massive impact, and it should not be overlooked, but 150 minutes per week (30 minutes per day over a 5 day school week) seems like an awfully low number for kids to do what they do best…play! What difficulties are schools experiencing that prohibits them from carving out more time for physical activity?

Aside from the school setting, perhaps we can also look inward as parents and adults. What kind of example are we setting? Are our children just following our lead? Maybe that would be a good place to start.


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