Why trying to improve student learning while decreasing physical activity is like shooting yourself in the foot before running a marathon


Physical and emotional energy are arguably a school community’s most important resource. Skillful teachers and administrators have always known how to heighten, moderate, and refocus that energy as situations demand.

However, outside forces can sometimes have a profound effect on energy in classrooms and schools. Federal, state, and local policies have unwittingly conspired to decrease physical education requirements and even eliminated recess in a misguided effort to improve test scores.

Students who are not able to discharge their energy in appropriate ways are far more likely to create management problems. So it’s not surprising that at the same time that physical activity has been declining in schools students diagnosed with attention-related disorders and discipline referrals to administrators have dramatically increased.

In addition, because students’ health correlates closely with their ability to learn, eliminating physical activity to improve test scores is self defeating. It is also a source of the youth obesity and other health-related problems that plague our country.

Therefore, I was pleased to see a new report from the Institute of Medicine that asks the U.S. Department of Education designate physical education be a core subject, as reported by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

About the report, Strauss writes: “While definitive data are not available, it says, the best estimate is that only about half of young people in the United States meet the current guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity daily.”

Strauss adds: “The consequences of inactivity are very real, the report says. ‘A lack of activity increases the risk of heart disease, colon and breast cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, and other diseases. Recent studies have found that in terms of mortality, the global population health burden of physical inactivity approaches that of cigarette smoking and obesity. Indeed, the prevalence of physical inactivity, along with this substantial associated disease risk, has been described as a pandemic.’”

Given the strong link between physical health and learning, it is difficult to fault this recommendation, although I know its implementation will be challenging given the narrowed, standardized-test driven focus of many schools.

What do you think… Is this recommendation just one more responsibility unfairly added to an already overflowing curriculum or is an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity essential to students’ learning and health?


11 Responses to “Why trying to improve student learning while decreasing physical activity is like shooting yourself in the foot before running a marathon”

  1. 1 Mike Phillips June 4, 2013 at 6:08 am

    The long-term (and short-term) benefits of physical activity are overwhelmingly important for North American culture. I’m glad to see more focus placed on daily physical activity in schools. Some things are more important than test scores, such as a healthy nation.

  2. 3 Jamie June 4, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Yes, I completely agree. Some students would have added benefit from stand-up desks and balance ball seats. In one of my final years as a primary school principal I figured out how to add 10 minutes of recess daily, bringing the total to 40 minutes. Many of our students rode bikes to school. It was a healthy and high achieving community who valued both pursuits. I agree, Dennis, they do go hand in hand.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks June 4, 2013 at 10:45 am

      Thanks, Jamie, for reminding us about the in-classroom ways in which we can engage students’ bodies as well as their minds.

  3. 5 Deanne Moore June 4, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Absolutely. An hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity is crucial to students’ learning. I would also support physical education being designated as a core subject. THAT would be great.

  4. 7 Marie June 5, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    While I agree with the article I also think that as educators we cannot tackle such a big issue on our own. Involved in child inactivity and obesity is our society of the times: super sized meals, fast paced and overly scheduled lifestyles relying on fast food or simply eating out and the amount of screen time children are allowed to have daily. Sometimes it does seem like an uphill battle.

  5. 9 wgiraudcomeau June 15, 2013 at 1:21 am

    I am in the daily exercise camp. Like John Ratey says, exercise is like a little bit or Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin. Any suggestions on what a SP. Ed. teacher with no budget can do with Gr. 8-12 IBI/LD students who need daily exercise? Most don’t do well in PE class. They are self-conscious and don’t enjoy team sports. They spend hours on video games at or on their smart phones. I need ideas and activities that my students will buy into. How do I get them motivated to get moving?

    • 10 Dennis Sparks June 15, 2013 at 6:06 am

      I wish that I could help you with that. Perhaps a reader will have some suggestions.

    • 11 P. Moorhouse July 24, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      In our Transition class at our school, special reward time included kids being allowed to play “Just Dance” on the Wii. Students loved it and worked up a sweat. Even though this is a video game, the kids were extremely active.

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