School systems across the nation are working to improve the standardized testing scores and the global competitiveness of America’s youth in the face of draconian budget cuts. The solution for many administrators has been to gut programs like physical education (PE) by letting go of instructors, decreasing minutes of instruction, and, in some cases, eliminating the program altogether. In 2006, less than 4% of elementary schools, less than 8% of middle schools, and a meager 2% of high schools nationwide require daily PE for students. Scientific research indicates that this solution is misguided given the positive impact of physical activity on the health, longevity, and productivity of future generations.
The decision to relegate PE first in line at the chopping block is both unethical and unwise. Most obviously, it is exacerbating the trend toward inactivity and sedentary living, a root cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Without the occasion and a structured setting, children are forgoing and thereby forgetting how to move. Schools – safe environments where children spend the majority of their waking hours – are in a unique position to provide such an occasion. The days of jumping rope, playing dodge ball, or organizing pick-up sports after school are relic of a bygone era. These days, time after school is spent indoors with personal media, staring at a screen for an average of six to seven hours each day. Young people between the ages of 10 and 16 spend a pitiful 12.6 minutes per day engaging in vigorous physical activity. It is no wonder that 32% of all American children ages 2 to 19 are overweight, including 17% who are obese. By slashing time for physical activity, our schools are restricting access to the tools, instruction, and practice necessary for children to pursue active lives.
Yet despite the national spotlight on childhood obesity and physical activity, the financial incentive for schools to allot time towards PE is nonexistent. In response to No Child Left Behind, which links federal funding for schools with progress in reading and mathematics, many administrators have restructured curriculums and reallocated time towards classroom instruction based on the assumption that time in the gym compromises academic performance. Because PE and recess do not intuitively translate into improved academic performance, these are two of the first programs to be defunded amidst budget constraints.
But does it hold true that more time in the classroom and less time on the playground actually boosts academic performance? Evidence indicates the contrary. A comprehensive review of research shows that academic performance remains unaffected by variations in time allocated to PE. Studies show that student achievement levels remained unchanged when schools increased or reduced time for PE ([i],[ii],[iii]). In fact, more time spent running around and playing sports may actually boost the performance of some students in the classroom ([iv],[v]). It appears that by slashing time for PE and play, we may be retarding the learning process, hampering intellectual growth, and even precipitating a decline in America’s academic standards. Ironically, a singular focus on classroom-based learning may be counterproductive to the paramount educational mission of the school itself; too much work with no play may be weakening the cognitive abilities that we are so eager to test ([vi]).
The reported association between PE and academic performance coincides with investigations into the link between physical activity and mental function. A surge of research over the past decade provides supportive evidence that physical activity is positively correlated with neurogenerative, neuroadaptive, and neuroprotective processes. Data from cross-sectional studies and randomized clinical trials suggest positive influences of fitness training on human brain structure and cognitive function. Exercise broadly improves cognition across a number of domains, particularly executive functions, the advanced mental processes that allow us to process, integrate, manipulate, and recall information ([vii]). Functional MRI data shows that modulation of physical activity disproportionately influences tasks that necessitate greater amounts of executive control ([viii]). This coincides with evidence that brain regions related to executive control, particularly the prefrontal cortex, are more plastic ([ix]), structurally sound ([x]), and even prone to growth ([xi]) with higher levels of aerobic fitness. On the molecular level, researchers agree that neurotrophins, particularly brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which support neurogenesis and brain plasticity, mediate the beneficial aspects of exercise on the brain.
Exercise has a particularly pronounced effect on the cognitive development of children, whose neural circuits continue to expand, form new connections, and mature throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. Numerous studies report a positive correlation between elevated activity levels and aerobic fitness on the cognitive performance of children ([xii],[xiii],[xiv]). In clinical trials, physical activity increases brain volume in areas implicated in executive processes, and can improve memory and executive functioning in school-aged youth, particularly those who are overweight ([xv],[xvi],[xvii]). Moreover, the productive release of energy and aggression during the school day improves concentration and behavior in the classroom. And through interactions at recess and in PE class, children engage in “social and emotional learning,” which teaches children to communicate, empathize, and make good decisions ([xviii]). Clearly, PE must be a mainstay in each child’s education as it infuses immeasurable, yet essential ingredients into the overall learning experience and developmental process.
In rectifying the misperception of physical education as a fun, but dispensable bonus, it will be important to cite real-world counterexamples that attest to its significance. The Naperville school system in Illinois, where fitness-based PE is a daily, graded requirement, illustrates the symbiosis between physical activity and intellectual achievement ([xix]). Here, PE is the very first class of the day, during which intense aerobic activity elevates the heart rate and complicated movements challenge neuromuscular coordination. A bath of neurotransmitters jump-starts the brain and primes it for optimal learning in the classroom. The test results at Naperville speak for themselves, with reading scores up by nearly twice as much and math scores up by a factor of 20. This provides an alternative approach for school administrators to concurrently combat childhood obesity and improve academic performance as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. This example may serve as part of the blueprint for widespread education reform in the future.
Next, in order to elevate the status of PE, to win the emotional support of administrators and the financial support of lawmakers, and ultimately to reinstate physical activity and play into school curriculums nationwide, the science must be championed and publicized. Physicians must play a central role in this effort. As authorities of health, physicians command the respect necessary to shift perspective, rally public support, and influence education policies, which are intertwined with the healthy development of children. Rather than simply telling children to be active at an annual physical exam, physicians could partner with PE teachers, dieticians, and athletes to instruct classes or give supplemental lectures on the benefits of healthy living. Connecting success in academics to success in athletics, rather than allowing these experiences to occupy separate and often antagonistic realms, may be a way to engage parents and to excite children. Instead of fixating on weight loss, shifting focus onto the cognitive benefits of physical activity could be better way to rally communities around preventive health.
Until authorities in the health care community connect education policy with the healthy development of future generations, PE will trend toward extinction in cash-strapped school districts. In turn, America’s children will continue to get less exercise, childhood obesity rates will escalate, and intellectual development may be undermined. Weight gain and brain drain is a toxic prescription for the future health and competitiveness of our country.
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