As a pediatrician, it is my job to advocate for the health of our children. It is also my job to promote and advocate for evidence-based programs and policies that work. That is why I believe so strongly that we must require high-quality, regular physical education in our North Carolina schools. There are three very clear benefits of physical education for our state’s youth.
The first benefit is for their health. Physical inactivity has replaced smoking as the most common cause of preventable death in the US. Since the early days of our country, the life span of each generation has been longer than the previous one. Sadly, for the first time in our history, this generation will live shorter, sicker lives than their parents due to the epidemic of obesity—and this is completely preventable.
Some may ask, “How can physical education in schools for such short amounts of time prevent or put a dent in this epidemic?” The science tells us that even short bouts of activity, done in a high-quality way and delivered at a moderate to vigorous level, can have a tremendous impact on children’s health. It can reduce BMI, reduce blood pressure, and can even reduce their cholesterol. So, physical education in schools really does matter.
Some may say, “Why schools? Why can’t kids get this at home? Why can’t their parents teach them to be physically active?” I was talking with a young patient about how he could be more physically active at home. This was a patient that lived near my hospital in Durham and I was urging him to get outside and play more often. He looked at me and said, “Dr. Armstrong, we live on the first floor of our apartment building. We don’t sit on chairs or couches when we eat or watch TV. We sit on the floor because every once in a while, a stray bullet will come through the window.” I realized that going for walk or playing in a local park may not be an option for some children and that PE in schools may be their only opportunity to be physically active. It is our obligation to ensure that all students have the opportunity to be active through regular, high-quality PE programs.
The second benefit of PE is for children’s behavior. If you walk into any elementary school these days you will see a number of wiggly children struggling to stay in their chairs and to pay attention and stay focused. As a pediatrician, I see more and more children with a diagnosis of ADHD who are getting special accommodations in their classrooms and who are getting medication just to help them get through the school day.
In Iowa, there is a group studying what effect PE can have on children’s ability to focus and pay attention. They have found tremendous benefits from well-placed, high-quality fitness focused PE in improving children’s ability to focus and sit still so they can receive their lessons. And, as a side benefit, they have found decreased burnout among the teachers who were struggling to keep these kids focused during the school day.
The third benefit of PE is to help children reach their academic potential. This has been studied extensively by a group at Harvard. We know that US children are falling behind other countries in all aspects of academic performance. What the researchers found was that well-placed PE in schools can improve children’s test scores. They studied children in elementary school who were taking the end-of-grade tests and found that children who received just three months of high-quality PE versus none improved their reading scores by 50 percent and their math scores by over 70 percent. This is a tremendous impact on our children’s learning potential!
They have also studied this by scanning children’s brain to see what lights up and what is active after children have been physically active. They found that the learning centers of the brain are more active after receiving three months of high-quality physical education. So, we can think of exercise as a “Miracle-Gro” for the brain. It is actually building brain cells—even more so than learning new information—so perhaps we should think more carefully about how we are using our children’s time during the school day.
It is imperative that we promote high-quality physical education in schools for our children’s health, their behavior, and so that they may reach their academic potential. We owe it to all our children to do this for them and their futures.
Sarah Armstrong is a pediatrician from Duke Health Center and researcher on the issue of childhood obesity.