By Ann Schimke
A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that instituting daily physical education classes for children would boost moderate to vigorous physical activity by 23 minutes a day, more than one-third of the 60 minutes recommended by federal guidelines.
The study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, assessed a variety of policy changes, quantifying each based on the amount of physical activity it would add to a child’s day.
In addition to adding daily physical education (P.E.) classes, the study found that incorporating classroom physical activity breaks and increasing walking or biking to school would also make a significant dent in the recommended minimum. Physical activity breaks would add 19 minutes a day and walking or biking to school would add 16 minutes a day.
Despite the federal recommendation that children ages 6-17 get 60 minutes of physical activity a day, only 49 percent of Colorado children ages 5-14 reached that threshold, according to 2011 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie is one school that bucks the trend. With the help of its “All-School Movement Program,” students routinely get nearly an hour of physical activity and sometimes more during the school day.
The school, which opened in 2011, mandates a 20-minute physical activity break in the morning and a similar 10-20 minute activity break in the afternoon. That’s in addition to a 20-minute daily recess and a 45-minute physical education class once or twice a week.
Red Hawk Principal Cyrus Weinberger said the school’s leadership team made sure physical activity breaks were built into the schedule from the very beginning.
“We were very careful to develop things so it was easy for teachers to implement,” he said.
Classes can choose from a menu of options for their physical activity breaks, which precede math and science, the most challenging academic subjects. Activities include things like dancing, jumping rope, outdoor relay races, or a power walking circuit dubbed the Red Hawk Walk. On Friday mornings, the 20-minute morning break is a school-wide affair with students, teachers, and even some support staff and parents participating in a fast-paced dance or exercise routine together.
Last June, the school was recognized for its movement program with a $100,000 award in the Active Schools Acceleration Project Innovation Competition. The project is coordinated by ChildObesity180, an organization at Tufts University that aims to reverse the trend of childhood obesity within one generation’s time.
Weinberger said Red Hawk was named a national winner largely because the effort was easy to scale and inexpensive.
“Our next level of work is integrating more movement into the academic part of the day,” he said.
Under a 2011 Colorado law, elementary schools must give their students opportunities to be physically active for at least 600 minutes a month, or about 30 minutes a day. The requirement can be satisfied through P.E. classes, recess, physical activity breaks, or field trips and classroom activities that include physical activity.
Kyle Legleiter, a public policy officer for the Colorado Health Foundation, said while there is currently no hard data on whether and how districts are complying with the law, anecdotal evidence indicates that many schools are making changes. Some have brought in coaches to make recess a more structured, physically active part of the day. Others have updated their physical education curriculums or redesigned their playgrounds to encourage more active play.
“The law has really helped them to raise the profile of this issue,” he said.