Early Impact of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on Physical Activity in Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools in Colorado

Local Wellness Policies had a minimal impact on practices regarding physical activity in 45 rural Colorado elementary schools. The United States required every school district participating in the National School Lunch Program to create a Local Wellness Policy (LWP) by June 2006, with the intent of increasing opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity. This study is one of the first to assess the efficacy of this unfunded federal mandate, and is part of a supplement to the Journal of Public Health Policy reporting on the 2008 Active Living Research Conference.

To assess the changes in school practices and in the amount of physical activity before and after implementation of an LWP, different questionnaires were given to school principals, food service managers, and physical education teachers, respectively. The study also used a coding methodology to assess Local Wellness Policies in 32 districts for comprehensiveness and strength of language (i.e., whether the policy language was specific, and used words like "require" rather than "encourage"). Study leaders also interviewed principals and district-level personnel in 13 schools to determine barriers to implementation of LWPs.

Key Findings:

  • After implementation of an LWP, the time spent in physical education (PE) increased by 14 minutes per week, but time spent in recess decreased by 19 minutes per week, a net decrease in physical activity of five minutes per week.
  • There was no increase in the number of principals who required students be allowed to participate in PE and recess despite their bad behavior or performance.
  • Unexpectedly, students in districts with LWPs that did not mention the length or frequency of PE or recess spent more time in those activities than students in districts with LWPs that addressed the quantity of PE or recess time.
  • On average, the districts' LWPs addressed fewer than half the assessed topics.
  • The wording of the model LWP provided by the Colorado Association of School Boards contained strong wording in only 19 of 96 assessed items; similarly, the wording of the LWPs in the studied districts was weak in all dimensions.
  • Districts cited numerous reasons for low implementation of their LWP, including: competing pressures from "No Child Left Behind" and other policy directives; lack of resources; and lack of accountability.

The study's small sample size limited the assessment of its statistical significance. The authors call for stronger language in the model policies, and additional research to identify successful strategies—such as reliance on a local "champion"—to overcome barriers to compliance with the mandate for increased physical activity.