Increasing Physical Activity Through Recess

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that children engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week, yet fewer than half of children ages 6 to 11 meet that recommendation.

Numerous legislative efforts, including the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, and leading public health organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association, recognize that schools play a critical role in supporting physical activity among children. Further, Healthy People 2020 objectives released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services underscore the importance of physical activity in schools, including daily physical education and regular recess. Providing recess is an important strategy for increasing health-promoting (i.e., moderate-to- vigorous) physical activity and improving behavior and concentration among students.

This issue brief presents findings from a number of research studies, that found:

  • Providing recess breaks throughout the day can improve students’ classroom behavior and attentiveness.
  • Children can accumulate up to 40 percent of their total daily physical activity during recess.
  • The number of school districts that require or recommend daily recess may be decreasing.
  • Children at high risk for obesity are least likely to have recess.

Although many leading organizations recommend that elementary schools provide daily recess, most states and school districts do not require it. Further, students who are at highest risk for obesity are least likely to attend a school that offers recess. Among students who do have recess, there is a wide range in the amount of time they spend engaged in physical activity. Several strategies for increasing physical activity during recess have been successful, including providing playground markings, activity zones, recreational equipment and trained supervisors.

Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, stimulates and supports research to identify environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity for children and families to inform effective childhood obesity prevention strategies, particularly in low-income and racial/ethnic communities at highest risk.