Gym Class: Is It Necessary?

As state and local budgets across the country have been squeezed amid the current economic slump, certain programs in schools have been hit harder than others. One of these is physical education (PE), or gym class, which is often considered not to be essential to the education and academic achievement of students. But as the rate of overweight and obesity in children and youth continues to soar (along with Type 2 diabetes[1]), some states and members of Congress are pushing back against cuts to PE programs — not necessarily, however, in the most direct or effective way.

As noted last week[2] in an article in The Columbus Dispatch, the State of Ohio has announced that starting next year, it will include performance in PE classes as part of its overall scoring of schools, to be mentioned in the state’s “school report cards.” This is ostensibly to hold districts, schools, and teachers accountable for physical education as with other subjects, making sure that students “know the correct way to exercise, understand how games are played, are active outside of school and play well with others,” as the article notes. Seventeen other states have taken a similar approach by scoring PE performance. In Ohio, however, ratings for PE classes won’t count toward a school’s overall academic performance rating, which is based on the proportion of students in a school who meet the state’s educational standards in core subject areas. Furthermore, Ohio, like many other states, doesn’t actually require any specific amount of physical education at the elementary and middle school levels; it only requires one half-unit of PE in high school to graduate. As a result, many school districts in the state have cut back on PE programs.

Earlier this year, the Tacoma, Washington, News Tribune published an article on efforts in Congress[3] to address lagging physical education standards throughout the country. According to the article, a bipartisan group of 84 lawmakers (including one from the area) supports a measure that would require schools to issue annual reports on the amount of physical activity students get in school. According to the plan’s supporters, this would force schools to be accountable to parents when it comes to their children’s fitness. There is, however, another federal approach toward encouraging physical activity in schools that is already in place: the Carol M. White Physical Education program, which will give out $78.8 million in grants this year to help schools support their PE programs. While this program can have a large effect in school districts that win grants, its effect is negligible nationwide. One member of Congress, however, is sponsoring a bill that would effectively require all schools to offer at least 150 minutes of PE class weekly in elementary schools and 225 minutes weekly in middle and high schools, the levels recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

The debate over physical education standards comes at a time when the childhood obesity rate in the United States is 17%, with more than a third of 6- to 19-year-olds overweight, according to the News Tribune article. And if the findings of a recent analysis[4] of 63 studies are correct, the long-term effects of childhood obesity may be worse than most people imagined. Published last week[5] in the journal BMJ, the analysis found that obese children and teens had significantly higher blood pressure and higher blood levels of cholesterol[6] and triglycerides[7], along with thickening of the heart muscle — all indicating an increased risk of cardiovascular disease at a young age.

What do you think — should Congress, or individual states, try to encourage more PE class in schools? Should either one set minimum standards for the amount of time students spend in PE classes? In evaluating schools, should states treat PE just like other classes, and take student performance into account when rating a school’s success? Should PE teachers be evaluated based on the fitness or health of their students? Should schools treat individual students’ fitness levels as seriously as they treat academic performance? Leave a comment below!

  1. Type 2 diabetes:
  2. As noted last week:
  3. article on efforts in Congress:
  4. findings of a recent analysis:
  5. Published last week:
  6. cholesterol:
  7. triglycerides:

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