For a number of reasons, physical education programs in U.S. schools seem to be in a state of decline. In the current economic climate, government funding for education programs has decreased in many areas, so physical education programs have often been among the first cut. Also, with schools needing to demonstrate success academically, teachers and administrators frequently worry about any activity that pulls students out of the classroom.The importance of physical education programsBut do physical education classes and programs hinder a school’s and its students’ academic performance? The health benefits of physical activity in children have been well documented. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans promoted by The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition recommends 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity each day. And it has been suggested that physically fit children are not only healthier, but they perform better on standardized academic tests.

A novel approach to physical education programs

Mitchell Elementary School, an underprivileged school in Charleston, South Carolina wanted to be proactive and tried to find a way to maintain academic performance without sacrificing physical activity. Their school nurse, Glennis Randazzo, applied for grants that would fund education and equipment through the PE4Life program. The school partnered with physicians at the Medical University of South Carolina to study the success of the program. Dr. Carly Scahill, a pediatrics resident at MUSC and one of the study’s lead authors, discussed the program and its results with me.

Prior to implementation of the new program, students at Mitchell Elementary underwent 40 minutes of physical education class per week. It increased to 40 minutes, five days per week under the new program. “The goal was to combine physical activity with intellectual stimulation,” Dr. Scahill pointed out.

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Stressing physical and mental exercise

The grants provided funds to educate the school nurse and school administrators on how to set up and execute the activities. It also allowed the school to convert two little-used classrooms into an All Minds Exercise room for the third through sixth graders and an Action Based Learning lab for kindergarten through second grade.

The younger children performed developmentally appropriate activities. For instance, the children might ride scooters while being asked to trace shapes with the scooters. They might also have to cross bridges of certain colors based on ones called out by the teacher.

Older children performed more active and intellectually challenging activities. They might run on treadmills showing a geography lesson on a video monitor while they run through the scenery. They also could climb a rock wall to work on math skills. For instance, while working on multiplication, if a student’s left foot was on a 2 and left hand was on a 4, then he would put his right hand on an 8.

Academic Results

Did the program help the students? The study did not look at athletic or health indices, but presumably doing physical activity for forty minutes, five days a week was beneficial for these children. The goal, however, was focused on their academic performance. Mitchell Elementary had consistently underperformed on the Measures of Academic Progress test in previous years, and school administrators hoped that their new allocation of school time to physical activity, even with an academic focus, did not exacerbate their low scores.Test scores and physical education programsSchools administer the test each fall. Each child’s scores are used to predict the score in the following spring. Prior to this new physical exercise program, only 55% of students achieved their spring goal on the MAP. After a year in the program, 68.5% of the students met their spring goals. “We were excited that it not only did not show a decrease in academic performance but instead improved it,” Dr. Scahill noted.

She points out that while she and her colleagues at MUSC were honored to participate in the study, the school itself deserves a great deal of credit. The school nurse worked to secure several grants to pay for the equipment and education to teach the program and took a large risk if the program did not work. “The school should be commended for thinking outside the box and showing a commitment to kids’ health and trust it would help academics.”

Next steps for physical education programs

I think this study is encouraging for a number of reasons. Funding for physical education programs at schools is being cut across much of the country. Recently these programs have been scaled back because of concerns about performance on standardized tests, with the thought that increased time for physical activity and less time in a traditional classroom necessarily equals lower test scores. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “If we can show that these kids were not adversely affected by physical education, schools might not be so fearful of having P.E. as part of the curriculum,” Dr. Scahill argues.

Plus, to me, this program does not seem that difficult to institute or administer. And while critics might point out that the equipment needed costs a good deal of money up front, Dr. Scahill points out that it is a one-time cost. And I would argue that if such a program helped improve the academic success of children, schools could obtain the money. Scahill says that multiple grants exist to fund programs like this one. And I think individual and corporate donors would also contribute.

So what is next? Do we wait and hope more schools try it? Dr. Scahill wants to expand the scope of the study, matching two schools based on demographics and academic performance and see if a school that utilizes the programs would outscore ones that didn’t. Plus more longitudinal data would be helpful to determine if these programs only help younger students or if they apply to students at all levels of education. “We could be missing out on opportunities to help kids from health standpoint as well as academic and intellectual standpoint.”