The U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and adolescents aged 6 to 17 years should have 60 minutes or more daily of moderate to vigorous physical activity, including muscle- and bone-strengthening activities three days/week. In addition to its substantial physical and mental health benefits, physical activity improves learning and behavior.
The Georgia legislature recently recognized these benefits and overwhelmingly gave bipartisan support to a bill mandating at least 30 minutes of recess daily in elementary school. Last week Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) vetoed the bill on the grounds that this mandate was too much government. However, Kemp failed to acknowledge that the school boards aren’t doing their jobs. A recent study reported that only about 25 percent of the Georgia elementary schools offered 30 minutes per day of physical education which conforms with recommendations by the the American Heart Association and Shape America. This veto is irresponsible, neglects children’s needs and makes no economic sense and overall is counterproductive at multiple levels.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that regular school physical activity programs decrease the likelihood of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and certain forms of cancer. Increased physical education in elementary schools results in better math and reading standardized test scores, reading and math skills and better classroom behavior for boys and girls.
Mandated recess not only supports health, but also learning and behavior in elementary school. Despite these benefits, only 5 states require recess, another 11 states “recommend it” and a total of 39 states have varying degrees of physical education requirement for elementary school.
These benefits are particularly relevant to Georgia. State estimates of the prevalence of obesity show Georgia ranks 36th among 2-to-5 year old children. Parents seem to be doing a better than average job of promoting good dietary and exercise habits in their pre-schoolers and only about 13 percent have obesity. By age 10 to17 years the prevalence rises to 18.4 percent. Only seven states have a higher prevalence of adolescent obesity.
During the elementary school years, Georgia’s children go from the lowest third to the highest quarter of the country in the prevalence of children with obesity and all its attendant health problems. These rankings will likely stay the same into adulthood. While meals, nutrition education, role modeling and exercise in elementary school may or may not contribute to the fattening of Georgia’s children, physical activity is a missed opportunity to combat it.
The costs of regular exercise to increase the time spent in moderately vigorous physical activity by 30 minutes per day is minimal. In a recent study of elementary school students in both public and private schools, the reported cost of implementation and maintenance of such a program was as about 32 cents per student per year. There is an estimated return of 32 dollars in health-care savings and labor participation for every dollar invested in school-based physical activity and education, making it a highly cost-effective intervention. Physical education benefits everyone now and in the future.
Certainly, physical education is not the only health scholarship that belongs in elementary schools. Healthful diets are at least as important. Unfortunately, current Secretary of Agriculture and former Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue has been working extensively to eliminate the provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act such that schools won’t have to provide food calorie labels, reduce fat, use as much fat-free milk, or serve meals with more whole grains. Somehow, this is going to “make school meals great again”, but fails to acknowledge that it will also make school meals and our children less healthy. Perdue’s logic resembles Gov. Kemp’s.
Even though this intervention is cost-effective (projected returns of 5 dollars in health-care costs for every dollar invested), is well received by red state and blue state students and is associated with better school performance and attendance, Perdue wants meal standards eliminated or delayed to avoid too much government.
The state of Georgia, like most states, dictates certain academic standards for schools and the material that must be covered but does not specify how it is taught. Given the strong links between good nutrition, physical activity, health, academic performance and behavior, it is entirely appropriate for the state to implement the healthiest food and physical activity standards possible.
Why do some Georgia politicians care more about ideology than the needs of children? Are they unaware the science that demonstrates the benefits of physical activity, good nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases? What happens in our schools has a direct and enduring impact on the health of our children and adolescents and extends to affecting our military readiness. Are they ignorant of the CDC reports of the negative impact that obesity is having on the ability of our armed services to recruit and retain military personnel?
The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that in defining what is most desirable in life, each of us should strive for a healthy mind in a healthy body. The No Child Left Behind Act clearly emphasized the importance of knowledge at the expense of health and promoted less recess in favor of more classroom time. It is clear now that this approach was wrong. Good health augments the acquisition of knowledge and is one of the most meaningful and beneficial lessons that we can share with our children.
Dr. Michael Rosenbaum is a professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He has spent over 30 years studying obesity and health practices in adults and children including school-based exercise and nutrition programming. Dr. William H. Dietz is the chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University and the former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His expertise in children's health, relevant health policies and school health are internationally recognized.