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How Far Has Physical Education Come in the Past 20 Years?

In terms of health benefits, how far has physical education progressed over the past 20 years?

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the 1991 paper, "Physical Education's Role in Public Health," the paper's original authors and a few colleagues looked back in the most recent issue of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport to see what still needs improvement.

In the 1991 paper, the authors encouraged physical educators to "adopt a new role and pursue a public-health goal for physical education." This mainly entailed providing physical activity during phys. ed. class and teaching students how to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives.

Much like the progress of Title IX, the authors find a half-full, half-empty tale of progress.

On the bright side, they praise recommendations and guidelines issued by many national health organizations, including the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, regarding the promotion of physical activity. The authors also recognize the push toward more physical activity in phys. ed. classes, both for health reasons and in an attempt to improve academic performance.

The federal government earns some praise in the report, too, for having increased support of physical education over the past two decades. Specifically, the authors single out the Carol M. White Physical Education Program and Michelle Obama's Let's Move! program.

There's place for concern, however. The authors criticize No Child Left Behind for "creat[ing] an environment in which physical education, music, and art are viewed as 'nonessential,' " leading to a reduction in physical education time in many schools over the past 10 years.

They also note that there's still no widespread measure for evaluating the quality of physical education programs, despite standards developed by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education, the American Heart Association, and the Institute of Medicine. All the existing standards leave something to be desired, the authors suggest.

So, what's the next step?

The authors propose replacing the term "health-related physical education" with "health-optimizing physical education" (HOPE), which would focus on health-related physical activity, keep students active for at least 50 percent of phys. ed., and involve each student, regardless of ability.

As for specific recommendations, they suggest conducting occasional national studies that measure the amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in phys. ed. classes, as well as developing easy ways for phys. ed. teachers to measure their students' MVPA.
The report also encourages policymakers at all levels to establish physical education policies that target both students' health and education through daily physical activity and phys. ed. classes.

Given that obesity-related health problems will cost the United States an estimated $190 billion this year, according to a study from April, the authors aren't hesitant to issue these recommendations.

"The health crisis emboldens us to recommend that education and public-health professionals work together with policymakers to optimize the contribution of physical education to health," they write.

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