May 2018

PE classes increase physical activity, reduce sedentary behavior

Funding for these school programs in jeopardy

By Katie Bell

Attending physical education (PE) classes is associated with a higher level of physical activity (PA) and a lower level of sedentary behavior (SB) in and out of school in children from countries at various levels of development, according to a multinational study that may have implications for the obesity epidemic among US children. However, reports show most US states have meager PE budgets and are cutting back on programs.

Lead author, Diego A. S. Silva, PhD, adjunct professor at Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, said, “As we found that participation in PE classes was associated with a shorter time in sedentary behavior and higher time in physical activity, we can affirm that participating in PE classes can help combat factors that affect childhood obesity [ie, sedentary lifestyle, low physical activity].”

The study comprised 5874 children aged 9 to 11 years from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, India, Kenya, Portugal, South Africa, the UK, and the US. Participants wore a waist accelerometer to measure physical activity and sedentary behavior for seven consecutive days, including 2two weekend days, and reported in a questionnaire how often they took PE.

The investigators defined four levels of PA: vigorous, activity at 1003 counts per 15 seconds; moderate, activity at 574 counts per 15 seconds or longer and less than 1003 counts per 15 seconds; moderate-to-vigorous, activity at 574 counts per 15 seconds or longer; and light, activity above 25 counts per 15 seconds and less than 574 counts per 15 seconds. Total sedentary time included all movement at 25 counts per 15 seconds or less.

Overall, 24.8% of children reported taking PE classes three or more times a week; in high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries, 25.3% and 24.3%, respectively, reached that level of participation.

After adjusting for age, sex, parental education, and body mass index, the study showed that children from low- and middle-income countries who participated in PE classes once or twice weekly were more likely to have 1) better indicators of physical activity (ie, time spent in moderate-to-vigorous activity) and 2) less sedentary time in and out of school.

In high-income countries, boys who participated in PE classes once or twice a week were more likely to meet moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommendations and to have better indicators of physical activity in school, along with less sedentary time in and out of school. In girls from high-income countries, attending PE classes increased the chance of spending more time in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, especially if they attended three or more PE classes a week.

“PE classes seem to represent an opportunity to positively influence the health of children,” said Silva.

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise published the study in May.

Susan W. Cecere, PT, MHS, media spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, noted that, “As a PT, and knowing the relationship between physical activity and health and well-being, I find it unfortunate that recess and PE have taken a nose dive over the last twenty years. To me it is no accident that we have seen an increase in negative [health] behaviors and obesity as a result.”

A 2016 report, “Shape of a Nation: Status of Physical Education in the USA,” prepared by the Society of Health and Physical Educators, found that only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet the national recommendation of 60 minutes a day of PE for students in elementary school and middle school. “Shape of a Nation” also showed that the median PE budget for US schools is only $764 per school, per school year, and only 15 states have additional funding available for PE programs. Additionally, most states allow exemptions and substitutions for PE, and many states allow PE to be withheld or used as punishment.

Meanwhile, a recent report from the Physical Activity Council noted that 80% of adults who had PE in school between 6 and 17 years of age are active and that 38% are active to a healthy level.

“I think the focus on physical literacy as opposed to a specific skill and developing an appreciation for activity over a life time will benefit the individual. Not everyone is ‘good’ at sports—but everyone can understand how important physical activity is to health and well-being,” Cecere said.

She noted that, in elementary school years, PE addresses developmentally appropriate skills such as skipping, hopping, and jumping, which build lower-extremity strength and balance.

“As the children mature they are asked to apply the skills learned in the earlier ages to more group game type activities,” she said. “The premise is that learning and developing these skills will enhance physical literacy and an appreciation for physical activity going forward.”

Katie Bell is a freelance writer in New York City.


Silva DAS, Chaput JP, Katzmarzyk PT, et al. Physical education classes, physical activity, and sedentary behavior in children. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2018;50:995-1004.

Shape of the nation 2016: Status of physical education in the USA. Reston, VA: Society of Health and Physical Educators; 2016. Accessed June 11, 2018.

2018 participation report. The Physical Activity Council’s annual study tracking sports, fitness, and recreation participation in the US. Physical Activity Council. Accessed June 11, 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *