A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that children are more likely to have better fitness levels if physical education at their school is mandatory. The researchers examined fitness levels among fifth graders in both public school districts in California that comply with the state’s mandatory physical education requirement and those that don’t.

Lead author, Emma V. Sanchez-Vaznaugh, Sc.D., assistant professor of health education at San Francisco State University, explained:

“Even though California has a physical education law and monitors its compliance, our study revealed that many school districts are not providing the required physical education and too many children go to school in districts that do not comply with physical education laws.”

According to the researchers, educators have an opportunity to influence life-long health habits, given that grade school children spend a large portion of their day in school. Children who do not take part in regular physical activities are more likely to be obese and have poorer overall health.

In California, physical education is mandatory by law for children in grades 1 to 6. The law states that each student should received 200 minutes of physical education each ten days. However, the researchers found that only half of the 55 school districts for which compliance data were available, complied to this law.

The authors conducted a 1 mile run or walk test and found that children were 29% more likely to be physically fit if they attended schools in policy-compliant school districts, than children who attended schools in non-compliant districts.

According to the researchers, individual schools might be more willing to comply with the law if there was sufficient funding for physical education and to monitor school compliance.

Charles T. Cappetta, M.D., adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and founder of Granite State FitKids, a child health promotion organization, explained:

“Mandates are tough to implement. They are nice in theory, but usually don’t work. Still, this policy is a start. Just saying ‘do it’ does not necessarily translate. You need to have an environment or culture in place that supports physical activity and exercise.”

Sanchez-Vaznaugh explained:

“Parents, educators, policy makers, schools and people involved in children’s health need to figure out how to help schools adhere to physical education laws so that our children can get the needed physical education while in school.”

Written by Grace Rattue