Physical Education and Physical Activity in Schools


Physical Education and Physical Activity in Schools

Helping all children get 60 minutes of physical activity every day

Experts recommend at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children. Physical activity provides important benefits for children, such as reducing the risk of obesity, building strong bones and muscles, and improving academic performance. Research has found a benefit of more than $32 for every $1 invested in school-based physical activity and physical education (PE) programs, such as reduced healthcare costs and increased labor participation. Despite these findings, there are no federal requirements for school-based PE or physical activity and few states require a minimum weekly amount of time spent in PE or physical activity.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which authorizes federal education programs, promotes school-based PE and physical activity in multiple ways, such as expanding the federal definition of a well-rounded education to include physical education; allowing federal funds to train classroom teachers and other school personnel on how to incorporate physical activity breaks into the classroom; permitting the integration of PE-related measures into their state report cards; and requiring that PE or physical activity programs be used as indicators of school quality in school accountability plans.

In addition to ESSA, the Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages schools to help students get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity, while Physical Activity Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provide guidance for policymakers and health professionals on the types of physical activity with the most health benefits.


Strong policies can help children and families eat healthier foods and be active. RWJF offers specific policy recommendations to help ensure more children in the United States have consistent access to healthy foods from the earliest days of life, in order to help them grow up at a healthy weight.

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Featured Studies and Resources


Shape of the Nation Report

The 2016 “Shape of the Nation” report provides a state-by-state review of physical education across the country. Only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet the national recommendations for weekly time in physical education at both the elementary and middle school levels.

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Strategies for Recess in Schools

In 2017, the CDC and SHAPE America recommended at least 20 minutes of recess daily for elementary students, and a period of daily physical activity for middle and high school students in addition to PE and in-class physical activity.

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Carol M. White Physical Education Program

From 2001 to 2015, the Carol M. White Physical Education Program provided approximately $989 million in grants to local school districts and community-based organizations to start, expand, or enhance PE programs for K-12 students. In its final year, $47 million in grants helped over 197,000 students across the country exercise more.

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State Policies on Physical Activity at School

Aside from home, kids spend the majority of their time at school. Does your state have policies that help kids get their recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day?

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Fast Facts


Only 29.9% of high school students attend physical education classes on all five days of the school week.

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The median PE budget is $764 per school, per school year.

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An extra 60 minutes per week in gym class reduced fifth-graders’ likelihood of obesity by 4.8%.

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Data to Share

Increasing the amount of time in PE up to the recommended amount of 150 minutes per week would lower BMI z-scores by 12% on average, and would reduce the probability of obesity by four percentage points.
In states with strong PE laws, 74% of girls reported regular PE attendance at least 3 days per week, compared with 52% of girls in states with no such laws.