The Crisis In Physical Education

By Judy Molland


Overweight, Less-Active Kids Fuel Movement to Revamp Phys-Ed Class

“What did you do in gym class today, dear?”
yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Nowadays, asking your child that question is likely to produce the response, “Not much,” or even “We don’t have phys ed this year!”

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Across the nation, parents, educators and health experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the high cost of allowing our young people to become sedentary.

Why all the concern? These statistics, from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), speak for themselves:

• Participation in physical activity declines as children get older
: 69 percent of ninth graders take part in regular, vigorous physical activity, while only 55 percent of 12th graders do.

• The percentage of students attending a daily physical education class has dropped
from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003. In fact, only 8 percent of elementary school, 6.4 percent of middle schools and 5.8 percent of high schools provide daily physical education or an equivalent.

• PE requirements in U.S. public schools have been decreasing for more than two decades.

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These figures reveal a crisis going on in our schools today, says Judy Young, former executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), “In many schools, PE is simply not a regular part of the educational program,” she says.


Why Is This Happening?

The status of phys ed in our nation’s schools has been in decline for at least the last 20 years, while there has been increasing focus on academic standards and testing. Many PE programs have taken a back seat to more “substantive” classes, as school committees, administrators and education leaders focus on courses they believe will help meet state standards.

At the same time, modern life has eliminated the need for much physical activity.  We no longer have to push open doors to enter stores, escalators and elevators move us up and down; and, in many places, roads don’t encourage walking. All of this makes physical education even more crucial for children.

Health Consequences

Parents may be troubled about their children missing out on the fun, teamwork and energy release that physical education offers. But the health consequences of increasing inactivity are even more serious.

“We are in the throes of an extraordinary epidemic of obesity among young people, and physical inactivity is a major factor in that,” notes Howell Wechsler of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The major health concern of children being overweight is that they’ll grow up to be adults who are overweight, but there are some immediate effects as well. We have this new phenomenon of seeing many cases of Type 2 diabetes in children, which simply did not happen before. Most experts think this is clearly linked to the increase in obesity.”

Diabetes is a very serious disease, and having people start to get it at an earlier age is a worrisome development for our society, Wechsler says.

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The statistics are startling:

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• 15-25 percent of all U.S. children are obese, affecting nearly 5 million youth (ages 6-17).

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• Adolescent obesity is increasing at an accelerated rate; 100 percent in the past 10 years.

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• An obese adolescent has a greater than 75 percent chance of being an obese adult.

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• 40 percent of U.S. children ages 5 to 8 show at least one sign of heart disease risk.

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Fitness and Development

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If these staggering numbers are not sufficient evidence, consider the numerous studies showing that movement is key to cognitive development. We’re literally doing kids harm by keeping them sedentary in the classroom for long periods. Phys ed also gives children a sense of self-awareness about their own bodies, and teaches them how to work well with others in a way that’s different from an academic setting.

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“Physical activity is essential,” declares Ken McAlpine, a father of two boys in Ventura, Calif. “It’s a critical part of their education, as important as their classwork.”

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“I’ve seen how PE builds self-esteem and confidence,” says Kathy Gold, a mother of three and a coach from Toluca Lake, Calif. “To see my 6-year-old go from having few or no skills in basketball to being able to get the ball up and into the basket is wonderful. She has an exuberance from knowing what she can do, a feeling of self-worth that she’s accomplished something.”

And Barbara A.F. Greene, a mother of two young children in San Antonio, Texas, is adamant that “kids need to be in perpetual motion, not just their minds, but their bodies, too. And when they’re sitting all day long in academics, PE helps them to use another part of their body. My daughter doesn’t have PE this year, and it’s really hurting her.”

Taking Action

Despite the depressing statistics on the state of phys ed and children’s sedentary lifestyles, people have been taking action.

In 1999, Jim Baugh, the CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods, raised $1 million from fellow manufacturers and spearheaded PE4LIFE, a national organization dedicated to promoting physical education. In 2000, Congress passed the Physical Education for Progress (PEP) Act, to provide $400 million over five years to local education agencies to initiate, expand and improve PE programs for all K-12 students. The bill rallied a lot of people to highlight this issue, including lawmakers.

Around the country, educators and PE experts are also addressing the issue of quality PE programs. A quality program, for example, is described as one involving components such as kids keeping notebooks, monitoring their own fitness, learning about their muscles and how to use weight machines correctly, as well as nutrition, first aid and CPR.

Yet quality phys ed goes beyond curriculum and attitude. Adequate facilities are essential. The lack of facilities at many schools is alarming. “Some elementary schools offer PE in cafeterias, because they don’t even have gymnasiums,” reports NASPE spokeswoman Paula Kun. “In other schools, there’s not enough equipment, like only one ball for the whole class. Or PE is for the elite only, whereas it should be about all children finding what they are good at.”


What Parents Can Do

As a concerned parent, there are several things you can do:

• Be familiar with your children’s physical, as well as cognitive, education.

• Make sure you send the message to your child that PE is as important as any other class.

• Encourage and support physical activity outside of school.

• Become a role model. It’s important for young kids to see that adults do physical activity, too.

• Participate in some sort of physical activity with your child.

• Monitor computer and TV time. Don’t eliminate it, but limit it to one or two hours per day.


Anne Flannery, the executive director of PE4LIFE, urges parents to ask about school and community efforts to encourage and promote physical activity. “Be an advocate for quality phys-ed programs for all children,” she advises. “Investigate what’s going on in your school, like the percentage of students taking daily PE, whether students can substitute other courses for PE and if teachers are certified.”


Once you’ve found out about these things, Flannery suggests attending local and state school board meetings and publicly requesting more resources for PE programs. 



National Association for Sport and Physical Education
(NASPE) – 703-476-3410,;   a non-profit professional organization of PE educators.

PE4LIFE – 202-776-0377, – a national organization dedicated to establishing quality, daily PE programs in all U.S. schools.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – 1-800-311-3435, – the lead federal agency for promoting public health and safety.


Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications.