Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport Examines “Physical Education’s Role in Public Health” over the Past 20 Years

Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport Examines “Physical Education’s Role in Public Health” over the Past 20 Years

RESTON, VA, June 28, 2012 – Has physical education contributed to addressing public health problems over the past 20 years?  Writing more than 20 years since their groundbreaking article, “Physical Education’s Role in Public Health,” was published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport (RQES), researchers Jim Sallis (Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California, San Diego) and Thomas McKenzie once again examine major accomplishments and identify areas lacking progress in improving the health impact of physical education. In the June 2012 issue of RQES, a professional journal of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), the authors and their colleagues Michael Beets, Aaron Beighle, Heather Erwin, and Sarah Lee address, “Physical Education’s Role in Public Health: Steps Forward and Backward Over 20 Years and HOPE for the Future.”

With the increasing impact of obesity on health, economic and social issues in the U.S., the authors say it is even more urgent that today’s physical educators, public health, and policy officials work together to optimize the impact physical education can make on the health of children. In this newly published piece, Sallis and colleagues take a glass half empty/half full approach, looking at both the positive outcomes that have developed as well as outlining where more work is needed to meet today’s health concerns.

The Gym is Half Full: Twenty years ago, physical education was not recognized for its public health value, but according to the authors, the public’s perception of the value of physical education in schools has dramatically improved since their 1991 article. More public health groups have called on schools to be proactive in promoting a physically active and healthy lifestyle to prevent and control obesity and other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The authors decided to replace their 1991 term “health-related physical education” with "HOPE, Health Optimizing Physical Education", proposing that physical education should encompass curriculum and lessons focused on health-optimizing physical activity and fitness, keeping students active for at least 50 percent of class time, and empowering them to be active regardless of physical abilities.

Of the major advances in the field, they point out the variety of evidence-based physical education programs that have been rigorously developed and evaluated in elementary, middle, and high school settings, including SPARK, a health optimizing physical education curriculum and staff development program, and CATCH, an elementary school physical activity and nutrition program. Both programs are implemented in school districts nationwide, which the authors say demonstrates the demand for active and tested physical education programs that can be feasibly implemented.

Another key positive discussed is federal support.  The authors applaud the significant increase, particularly in the public health sector, starting in 1992 with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funding of several state agencies to partner with health departments to help increase physical activity and healthy eating and prevent tobacco usage in young adults. Currently 22 states are benefitting from CDC funding. Another major milestone came in 2001 when Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Education to administer the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, also known as PEP.  With advocating for quality physical education programs a key part of its mission, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education of AAHPERD (NASPE) has been instrumental in advocating for PEP funding over the years, which helps local education agencies and community-based organizations to initiate, expand, or improve physical education programs in schools.  Sallis and colleagues highlight other more recent national initiatives and programs that have surfaced supporting the 20-year rationale of aligning physical education with public health goals. These include NASPE’s publishing of revised National Standards for Physical Education in 2004, the release of the 2006 CDC Physical Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (PECAT), the 2010 passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, and most recently the 2010 launch of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! childhood obesity initiative and the newly named President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition (PCFSN).

Another major advancement discussed is the growth of evidence linking physical education-based physical activity and academic achievement. In a 2010 CDC report, 11 of 14 studies showed at least one positive correlation between physical education and academics such as improved standardized test scores and grades and teacher ratings of student behavior. The authors conclude that research significantly supports the notion that physical education and other physical activity programs can contribute to a school’s primary academic mission while improving students’ health.

The Gym is Half Empty: While there have been many positive advances in the field, the group boldly discusses where progress still needs to be made, starting with the lack of state support as also noted in the 2010 Shape of the Nation Report, published by NASPE every five years since 1987. While more than half of states mandate physical education from elementary to high school levels, only four specify time requirements and 26 grant waivers and/or exemptions. They also point out that although physical education bills were introduced and passed, only 11 states passed legislation calling for more physical activity time during physical education classes.

An increased focus on improving standardized test scores, and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act which created an environment where physical education became viewed as “non-essential,” are identified as barriers to improving physical education. Sallis and colleagues say other areas for improvement include increasing the uptake of evidence-based programs, establishing national surveillance of physical education quantity and quality, adopting stronger policies that support active physical education, and achieving wide acceptance of public health goals within the physical education field.

Among the recommendations, the authors call for increasing physical activity in physical education programs and optimizing the impact on the public's health. Cheryl L. Richardson, senior director of programs for AAHPERD, says “AAHPERD’s Let’s Move in School (LMIS) national initiative to increase physical activity before, during and after school, gives physical educators, school leaders, and parents the resources to ensure students receive maximum opportunities to be active via a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program (CSPAP). Resources include toolkits, webinars and other downloadable materials. Currently over 7,000 schools are registered with LMIS, pledging a commitment to quality physical education and physical activity programs.”

“We encourage all physical education curriculum writers to embrace HOPE concepts, generate creative approaches to ensuring active classes, and pursue program evaluation so they can become evidence-based,” says Sallis. “Those in the physical education field need to take responsibility for ensuring that programs in the school setting have optimal public health benefits. It does not mean abandoning all other physical education goals, rather, ensuring that health goals are primary.”

The article is published in the latest issue of RQES and can be accessed online. For information about the journal, visit AAHPERD’s Research Consortium.

About the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD)

AAHPERD, an alliance of five national associations, six district associations, and a Research Consortium, provides its members with a comprehensive and coordinated array of resources, support, and programs to help practitioners improve their skills to further the health and well-being of the American public. It is the largest organization of professionals involved in physical education, recreation, fitness, dance, health promotion and all specialties related to achieving an active, healthy lifestyle. AAHPERD serves 20,000 members and has its headquarters in Reston, Virginia, 25 miles west of Washington, DC. To learn more, visit

About the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sports

Published consecutively since 1930, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport is a peer-reviewed research journal that has contributed significantly to the knowledge base of human movement studies. The journal's goal is to contribute to, impact theory and practice, stimulate research about, and provide reviews and tutorial regarding human movement. RQES is a publication of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD).

June 28, 2012
Date Updated: 
June, 2012