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The Case for Bringing P.E. Back to Schools

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The Case for Bringing P.E. Back to Schools

Feb 02, 2015

Academic pressures have led to a nationwide trend to cut back on physical education and recess in public schools. Timothy Brusseau, Ph.D., assistant professor in exercise and sport science at the University of Utah talks about how this impacts kids, and how it will impact them as adults. He describes research that shows why even teachers and administrators focused on academic achievement should embrace an education that nourishes the whole child.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Introducing a healthy lifestyle at school, up next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research Show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: I'm talking with Dr. Timothy Brusseau, an assistant professor in exercise and sports science at the University of Utah. One thing I found interesting is that playing or being active is actually a learned behavior and you have to figure this out when you're young.

Dr. Brusseau: What we're learning is that really physical activity peaks when a kid is about 11 or 12-years-old. So if they aren't physically active or aren't learning to be active or really being provided an opportunity to play, it predicts physical inactivity through adolescence and into adulthood. So inactive kids become inactive adults, active kids generally have a better chance of being active adults.
We really are a society now where we're scared to let our kids go out and play. We're scared to provide them an opportunity because of safety issues, because of the society that we live in as well as the technology, etcetera. So we generally want kids to be active for about 60 minutes a day, and we're finding that kids are falling short of that. Another reference that we utilize is 12,000 steps a day. We use pedometers quite a bit because it gives feedback to kids. And we're finding that kids are falling short of the 12,000 step recommendation as well.

Interviewer: And it turns out that schools actually play a really important part in this.

Dr. Brusseau: This is probably one of the major issues. Physical activity in school is probably one of the earliest public health efforts that our country made. Probably 100 years ago or so we decided to teach physical education. Twenty years ago, 25 years ago, it was pretty common for kids to have daily physical education. So in the elementary school they might have 30 or 45 minutes every day where they had an opportunity to be physically active in an educational setting. They also would oftentimes have recess multiple times a day.
What we're seeing now, though, is with Federal recommendations, No Child Left Behind, Common Core Standards, that schools are feeling the academic pressure. So what we're seeing is schools are minimizing or in many cases eliminating physical activity opportunities in lieu of other academic opportunities.

Interviewer: Well it makes sense that what schools do makes a big impact on kids because kids spend most of their time in school, at least during the school year.

Dr. Brusseau: Yeah, you know it's interesting because some of the research that I've done where I've examined physical activity during the school week versus the weekends, for example, the kids don't make up for the physical activity they get in school. So we've used pedometers and accelerometers to measure physical activity while kids are in school, they wear the instruments home, and then we compare the in-school and out of school activity opportunities.
And just to throw a number out there, if kids are averaging about 5,000 steps per day at school and about 7,000 out of school, it's pretty common for us to see weekend physical activity right around that 7,000 step marker. So they're not making up for that recess, that physical education, the opportunities to play before and after school. So now they're not making up for those opportunities, especially in our under-served communities where maybe they're not involved in recreation activities or able to play in a safe place.

Interviewer: Something else that I found interesting is that even though schools are taking away physical education time so they can have more academics, it's actually counterproductive. There's some evidence that kids don't perform as well academically if they don't get the physical education.

Dr. Brusseau: Yeah, you know it's something that is very difficult to get across to school administrators and parents, but what we've found is that physical activity provides an opportunity for a child to get a break, to get that physical activity, to get the antsiness out, to be able to bring their focus back. So some of our research actually has shown that as little as 10 minutes of activity can increase on-task behavior in the classroom by about 10%. So if a classroom teacher gives their kids the opportunity to take a break, let's do 10 minutes of physical activity, it could be moving around, it could be being in the hallway, it could at their desk. There's a lot of activities we could do. We see an increase in on-task behavior, and when kids are on-task they're more likely to learn.
One thing that I've found working with classroom teachers, working with schools, working with superintendents, is yes, the health is important, but they're really most interested in "Okay, if we get our kids more physically active, or we add physical activity, can we do better academically?" And that's how I've had to sort of realign my research when I'm talking to the stakeholders, is I'm all about health and academics but the folks that I'm trying to sell this to are about the academics. So when I can show them that information it really is pretty rewarding for both of us.

Interviewer: So you talked about not only the classroom activities but working on recess, getting kids more active in recess and before- and after-school. It's great and fantastic to have these new behaviors during the school year, but do you have any evidence that these behaviors continue when they're not in school?

Dr. Brusseau: One of the big issues or the big fears nationally by doing this oftentimes is "Well, if we get kids more active in school, they're going to be less active outside of school." So simply, we're replacing what they would be doing at home with something they would be doing at school. And one of the things that we've had some success in when we've examined the impact of this programming is that we actually have seen either out of school physical activity while they're not at school either stay the same or increase.

Interviewer: So maybe it's more like you're developing a good habit.

Dr. Brusseau: Yeah it becomes part of the culture, and that's the biggest issue in schools is there's a need for a culture change. The focus is so much on academics that we oftentimes forget about educating the entire kid. Many kids, especially in our under-served neighborhoods, don't have opportunities to be physically active outside of school. Their families can't afford for these kids to be physically active. So if they're not getting something from the time Mom drops them off at school or they walk to school until they leave in the afternoon, odds are they're not going to get a whole lot outside of that. So it's important to change that culture and make this an important part of the school day.
It's really important for the future of our society to get kids physically active and if we take that out of the schools, not only are we going to prohibit perhaps academic achievement, but there's going to be long-term consequences as well because that inactivity tracks into adulthood. Obviously our health care system is bombarded with obesity and inactivity related issues. So if we can get to them before elementary school, I think there's great opportunity to make a difference, not only today but to the long-term health of our society.

Announcer: Interesting. Informative. And all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.