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Physical Activity for School Age Children

Obesity among young people is a major public health concern in the United States. During the period 1980-2008, the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% to 19.6% and from 5.0% to 18.1% among youth aged 12 to 19 years. Obesity and overweight are significantly influenced by poor diet and physical inactivity. The 2008 report of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee describes physical inactivity as a contributing factor to premature death, high blood pressure, diabetes, colon cancer, and heart disease. The report also describes the benefits of exercise which include building strong bones and muscles, reducing the risk of obesity and chronic diseases related to obesity and promoting psychological well being. Also relevant to the discussion is an understanding of the difference between physical education and physical activity. Simply stated, physical education programs offer an opportunity to provide physical activity to children in school and instruction needed to establish and sustain an active lifestyle. Physical activity is bodily movement of any type, inside or away from school, and may include recreational activities, sports and daily activities.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Surgeon General of the United States
    • The Surgeon General of the United States has published a report titled, “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation 2010.” The report includes relevant information about childhood obesity, sedentary lifestyles among school aged children, and opportunities for obesity prevention using physical activity.

Policy and Guidelines

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
    • The DHHS published, 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans as a science-based guide for policy makers and health professionals to describe the types and amounts of physical activity that are required for substantial health benefits. DHHS recommendations include 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous exercise for children and adolescents and 150 minutes per week for active adults and active older adults. The document addresses all ages, but chapter three is titled, “Active Children and Adolescents.” The links below include the full report and chapter three.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
    • The CDC published “Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States” in the July 24, 2009 MMWR Recommendations and Reports. The article lists 24 strategies for preventing obesity; two relate to school physical activity and eight to community-based physical activity. Within the school setting, CDC recommends 150 minutes of physical activity for elementary school children each week and 225 minutes for middle and high school students.
    • The CDC publishes the “Guide to Community Preventive Services” that includes the Community Guide Topic: Promoting Physical Activity. The guide recommends that children and adolescents participate in 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
    •  The CDC Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity maintains a website that encourages children to be physically active for 60 minutes or more each day. The website encourages aerobic activity, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening.
  • National Association of Sport and Physical Education (NASPE)
  • American Heart Association (AHA)
    • The AHA advocates for legislative improvements that can improve the quantity and quality of physical education in schools. The AHA position statement requires daily physical education in grades kindergarten through 12 to combat obesity which AHA describes as a significant contributing factor to rising healthcare costs and threatens the United States competitive advantage as a nation. AHA recommends a minimum physical education standard for elementary students of 150 minutes per week and 225 minutes per week for middle school students. AHA also recommends that successfully completing physical education be a requirement for high school graduation. The AHA maintains a website titled, Physical Education in Schools with information and relevant links.
  • National Parent Teacher Association (PTA)


Examples of Federal Legislation and Regulations related to School Physical Education

  • Authorization Note - Federal Legislation:
    • Federal law does not prescribe minimum standards for physical education in schools; instead, the federal government relies on grant programs administered by the Departments of Education and Transportation to create incentives that promote physical activity in the school setting as well as walking and biking between school and home. Federal legislation does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in the educational setting including physical education and sports. Without federal requirements, state and local jurisdictions have passed a variety of laws and policy that define minimum standards for time requirements and the quality of physical education and recess. State and local quantitative policies vary ranging from no time requirement to an established minimum number of minutes students must participate in physical activity each week. Qualitative standards also vary among jurisdictions, from the absence of physical education standards to a standards-based requirement that students participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity.


  • United States Department of Education (ED)
    •  The U.S. ED administers the Carol M. White Physical Education Program which provides grants to local education agencies and community organizations. The purpose of the program is to provide funding to initiate, expand or enhance physical activity programs that help students make progress toward meeting their established state standards.
    • The U.S. ED administers title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (as amended by Pub. L. 93-568, 88 Stat. 1855) which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. The statute extends to activities that are during school and school related such as sporting events. Under the statute, states are not preempted from creating stricter standards. See the link in the state legislative section for state Title IX laws (Women’s Sports Foundation).
  • United States Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (DOT-FHWA)
      • The DOT-FHWA administers the Safe Accountable Flexible Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) which includes the Safe Routes to School Program. In the late 1960’s approximately 50% of children walked or bicycled to school, but today that number is less than 15%. Safe Routes to School has become a national and international grass roots movement to create safe and convenient opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from schools to encourage physical activity. The two links take you to the FHWA Safe Routes to School website and the National Center for Safe Routes to School website which is maintained by the University of North Carolina using FHWA funding to coordinate activities and provide resources related to the program.


Examples of State and Local Legislation and Regulations related to School Physical Education

  • Nutrition and Physical Activity Legislative Database
    • CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity maintains a database of state-level bills related to nutrition and physical activity considered between 2001 and 2008. Bill information was gathered from several sources, including state legislative web pages, the National Council of State Legislatures, and Health Policy Tracking Service, Council of State Governments and reviews of media coverage. Full text versions of the legislative bills are available from each state legislative Web page.
  • National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)
    • NASBE maintains a comprehensive summary of state physical education legislation, with links to each state’s statute or physical education policy. The “Physical Education” database identifies 1) state physical education requirements (mandates), 2) exemptions, 3) curriculum content, and 4) physical fitness assessments. Each criterion is annotated for each state making this a comprehensive database for school physical education requirements.
    • In addition to its comprehensive physical education database, NASBE maintains a comprehensive summary of state legislation on school policies and state laws related to physical activity other than physical education. The website provides links to state legislation and policy related to 1) recess or physical activity breaks, 2) recess before lunch, and 3) walking or biking to school.
  • Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF)
    • In 2003, the WSF published a compendium of state and territorial (i.e., Guam) statutes related to Title IX. The 17 entries listed include the citation and statutory language for each state’s relevant statute. The compendium also includes the statutes of the four states that specifically legislated on the topic of “Fee Waivers” and “Funding” as it relates to equal opportunity in sports regardless of sex.
  • Arkansas
    • In August 2007, the Arkansas Department of Education promulgated rules governing physical activity standards and using  the “body mass index” to assess overweight and obesity. The Arkansas standards require 90 minutes of physical activity each week in grades K-6, but have no physical activity requirement for grades beyond that level. However, each grade level K-8 requires 60 minutes of physical education each week and students are required to complete one-half unit of physical education in grades 9-12 to graduate.
  • Florida
    • Statute 1003.455 (2007) mandates 150 minutes of physical education each week for students in grades K-5 and SB 608 (2008) expands the requirement to grades 6-8 beginning in the 2009-10 school year. Statute 1003.428 (2007) requires one credit of physical education in high school as a graduation requirement.
  • Louisiana
    • First passed in July 2004, and updated in July 2009, the Louisiana legislature enacted a statute that requires students in grades K-8 to engage in  at least thirty minutes of physical activity each school day. The unique aspect of this statute is that it requires the physical activity to be “quality moderate to vigorous physical activity for students.”
  • Mississippi
  • South Carolina
    • The South Carolina legislature passed legislation requiring elementary school students to receive 30 minutes of physical activity each day and 150 minutes each week beginning in the 2006-2007 school year. A unique aspect of this statute is that it requires the student to teacher ratio for any individual class to be less than 28 to 1. It also required a certified physical education teacher for every 500 students by the 2008-2009 school year.

DISCLAIMER: Information available on this website that was not developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not necessarily represent any CDC policy, position, or endorsement of that information or of its sources. The information contained on this website is not legal advice; if you have questions about a specific law or its application you should consult your legal counsel.

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