In their 2010 national action guide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated the importance of collaborating with local school districts to incorporate evidence-based curricula to improve the quality of physical education (PE), and increase the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity in PE classes. Furthermore, the CDC recommended that schools require at least one daily period of recess for at least 20 minutes in length.

Although many school districts are concerned that reducing class time to incorporate PE or recess will affect students’ performance on standardized tests, evidence points to the contrary. For example, an analysis of FITNESSGRAM test results from over 2.4 million Texas students in grades 3 to 12 during the 2007-08 school year, found significant correlations between physical fitness achievement and improved performance on state standardized tests.

The CDC conducted research analyzing the link between PE, recess, classroom physical activity, and extracurricular physical activity on academic achievement (i.e., grades, standardized test scores). In all cases, they found that increased physical activity time—regardless of method—appeared to have a positive correlation or no correlation with cognitive skills and academic achievement. None of the studies found negative associations. In California, researchers investigated the effect of a rigorous two-year program that more than doubled the amount of time elementary students spent in PE and found no adverse effect on overall academic achievement.

School PE programs, recess, classroom physical activity, and extracurricular physical activities cannot singlehandedly reverse the current childhood obesity epidemic. However, more than 50 million students spend a significant portion of their daily lives in school; so this social context is surely one of the most powerful institutions shaping the next generation of youth. If district or local school policies are not put in place to ensure that children engage in physical activity during the school day, their risk of obesity will continue to rise.