For children’s overall academic and physical development and success, their schools should play a major role in making sure they all have opportunities to take part in vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity, the Institute of Medicine urges in a new report.

The authors stressed that physical activity should last at least 60 minutes per day.

According to recent estimates, only half of all schoolchildren in the USA meet this evidence-based guideline for promoting better development and health. Daily physical activity should take place within normal school hours in P.E. (physical education) classes, breaks or recess, and classroom exercises. Active commutes to and from school should be encouraged, there should be extra-curricular programs, as well as intramural or varsity sports.

According to a report published in American Journal of Public Health, many schools in the USA have been eliminating physical education classes.

Harold W. Kohl III, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health and chair of the Report Committee, said:

“Schools are critical for the education and health of our children. They already provide key services such as health screenings, immunizations, and nutritious meals.

Daily physical activity is as important to children’s health and development as these other health-related services, and providing opportunities for physical activity should be a priority for all schools, both through physical education and other options.”

The Department of Education should designate physical education as a core academic subject. P.E. should receive the necessary resources to enhance content, instruction and accountability, the authors wrote.

There are no consistent nationwide policies in the USA regarding physical education. Most states have laws regarding physical activity in schools. According to The Committee, children in elementary school should be involved in some kind of school physical activity for 30 minutes each day, while those in middle and high schools should do 45 minutes. Half of all physical education time should involve vigorous or moderate-intensity sessions.

The authors added that additional opportunities for physical activity should exist throughout the school environment, apart from physical education.

Since 2001, when the “No Child Left Behind Act” was passed, 44% of school administrators say they have cut considerable time from physical education and recess in order to add more time to mathematics and reading in the classroom.

More and more studies are showing a link between physical activity, fitness and academic performance, especially in reading and math. The authors wrote that “the benefits of engaging in physical activity during the school day outweigh the benefits of exclusive use of classroom time for academic learning”.

According to the report, the greatest benefits for schoolchildren come from taking part in a range of physical activities, including resistance exercises, aerobic activities, and structured and unstructured sessions. “For example, aerobic fitness is linked to brain structure and function related to working memory and problem solving, and single bursts of activity have been shown to increase time on task and improve focus. Recess provides students the chance to refine social skills and use their imaginations”.

As well as spending a minimum amount of time each day in P.E. classes, schoolchildren should also have frequent classroom breaks. Withdrawing recesses as a form of punishment is not recommended, neither should recesses be replaced with academic subjects. The Committee illustrates how it is possible to fit in plenty of physical education time without undermining the teaching of core academic subjects.

In order to make sure there is equal access to physical activity and physical education, it is important to have the support of local education administrators, as well as district, state and federal governments.

Physical activity should be considered in all policy decisions related to the school environment by city planners and parent-teacher organizations.

The following organizations sponsored this study: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.

Researchers from San Francisco State University reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that kids are more likely to have better fitness levels in schools where physical education is compulsory.

Written by Christian Nordqvist