Study Suggests Schools Lacking in Exercise Programs for Children

America's young children may not be getting enough vigorous physical exercise through their schools' physical education (PE) programs, suggests the latest analysis by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.

Briefly, the third grade children in the study received an average of 25 minutes per week in school of moderate to vigorous activity. Experts in the U.S. have recommended that young people should participate in physical activity of at least moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes each day. In addition, Healthy People 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) set of health objectives for Americans, seeks to increase the number of schools requiring daily PE for all students. Last June, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson released a report, "Physical Activity Fundamental to Preventing Disease, "which estimated that 300,000 Americans die each year as a result of a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits.

The current analysis, of school PE activities for third graders taking part in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, appears in the February Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"Obesity and lack of physical fitness in our young children may set the stage for diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems later in life," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD. "President Bush, Secretary Thompson and all of us in HHS are committed to doing more to promote active, healthier lifestyles, especially for our children. This study provides important information for parents and school systems to take into account when devising physical education programs for children in their districts."

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development enrolled just over 1,300 children at birth at 10 research sites throughout the United States. The researchers conduct periodic observations and evaluations of many aspects of the children's lives as they progress from infancy through adolescence. The current analysis was conducted on information gained from direct observations of the children participating in the study while they were in physical activity classes.

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development is not a survey of a representative sample of children in the United States. Rather, the investigators recruited a geographically, economically and ethnically diverse sample of children from across the United States.

The observations conducted in PE classes provided insight into the amount and types of PE programs offered to 814 third graders at 648 U.S. schools across the country. Observers tracked the activity of a child as he or she participated in school PE classes. The observers used the following categories to describe the activities in each class:

  • Management-teachers' activities related to preparing the children for an activity, such as forming a line or moving from one location to another.
  • Knowledge-teachers' explanations pertaining to the activity about to take place, such as explaining the rules of a game.
  • Fitness-structured physical exercises, such as calisthenics. Skill Practice-learning a skill essential to an activity, such as dribbling a basketball.
  • Game play-games or sports, such as softball or basketball.
  • Free play-allowing the children to engage in unstructured activity.

On average, children had 2.1 PE classes per week, totaling 68.7 minutes. Only 5.9 percent of the children had PE five times a week; 2.6 percent, four times a week; 16 percent, three times a week; 45.3 percent, twice a week; and 30.2 percent, once a week. Of the average time children spent in class, 10.4 minutes were spent in game play, 7 minutes on management, 5 minutes on skills practice, 4.8 minutes on fitness, 4.6 minutes on knowledge, and .7 minutes on other activities. For each class, students engaged in only about 4.8 minutes of vigorous physical activity, and 11.9 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

The authors noted that PE programs vary greatly at the state and local level, with allotted time for classes ranging from 30 minutes per week to 150 minutes per week. Fears that increasing physical activity might have a negative impact on academic performance are unfounded, according to the authors. Earlier studies, published by others, had shown that increasing the length of time in PE classes and the intensity of physical activity in the classes did not have a detrimental effect on academic achievement.

The study also reiterated findings by other researchers that boys spent a greater percentage of class time in moderate to vigorous physical activity (38.3 percent) than did girls (35.6 percent). In addition to calling for more vigorous PE for all children, the authors also called for improvements in the curriculum of PE classes to encourage girls to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity.


The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical research arm of the federal government. NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as well as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD Web site,, or from the NICHD Information Resource Center, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail

top of pageBACK TO TOP