Even though an estimated 10 million kids between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight or obese, budget cuts have eliminated physical education programs in many schools and have even led some school districts to put an end to recess. Gym class is not just a time for students to burn off excess energy during the school day, but rather, it’s an important curriculum that teaches young people how to be physically active over their lifespan.
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Burning off excess energy may help students relax and focus better on schoolwork. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana found that after 30 minutes of moderate walking on a treadmill, boys and girls aged 9 and 10 performed better on cognitive and academic tests. These results suggest that bouts of moderately intense aerobic exercise affect cognitive health and may improve students' performance.
Recess gives students a chance to get fresh air, run, play and relax. Now researchers are finding that this time has other far-reaching benefits. A 2011 study published by the journal “Environmental Science and Technology” reviewed trials that compared the effects of outdoor exercise and indoor exercises in adults and children. Exercising outdoors, in a natural environment, was linked to increased energy levels, positive feelings, and decreased tension, confusion, anger and depression. Unfortunately, these results point only to mental health improvements in participants who spent time in natural outdoor environments, not those who spent time outdoors in an urban environment.
In some cases, principals have claimed that gym class interferes with academics, and when physical education is eliminated, students have more time for other subjects and have better test scores. In 1999, researchers evaluated test scores from 759 students in fourth and fifth grades in California. They found that kids in schools with intensive phys-ed programs fared well on standardized exams. In a 2007 study conducted in Canada, students who participated in a 10-minute physical activity during class each day, in addition to a regularly scheduled 80-minute weekly gym class, did as well on standardized test scores as those who had the normally scheduled gym program. Both studies showed that students who received additional physical activity instruction in school maintained or improved grades, despite receiving less academic classroom instruction.
According to a 2009 report by the American Heart Association, children who are active thrive socially as well as academically. Through physical education, young people learn how to be active in safe and healthy ways. Further, kids who are physically active are less likely to use tobacco. They also sleep better, are less anxious and are less likely to suffer from depression. The AHA suggests offering at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity in school each day.