Students at North Attleborough Middle School attend physical education class every other day for 48 minutes. It’s not much, but Jason Feid, a physical education teacher at the school for the last 18 years, counts himself lucky to get them in the gym for even that amount of time.
“Obviously the ideal would be to have the kids every day, and right now the number of kids is crazy — 35 kids in a class and four classes at the same time in the gymnasium,” says Feid. “But I’d much rather that than cut the number of students or the amount of time.”
Massachusetts requires students to take physical education in grades K-12, but the state does not set a requirement for the minimum amount of time that students must participate — leading many schools to reduce or cut PE programs when funding is tight. A school can fulfill the requirement any number of other ways, even by taking students out on a walk once a quarter. “Schools get away with all kinds of different ways around it,” says Feid.
Our state is not alone. Overall, American students are not getting enough time in physical education classes, according to the new Shape of the Nation report, released this month by SHAPE America — the nation’s largest organization of health and physical educators — and Voices for Healthy Kids, an initiative from the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
That’s terrible news when compounded with the fact that American kids are becoming more sedentary and more overweight. A third of American kids, ages 2 to 19, currently qualify as overweight or obese — a condition that raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and more.
The new report gathered information from state education departments for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Overall, the results were disappointing: Only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet the American Heart Association’s recommendations for 150 minutes of physical education per week in elementary school and 225 minutes per week in middle school. That may be because few states set minimum amounts of time that students must participate in PE And just 15 states have separate state funding available for PE programs. Massachusetts isn’t one of them.
There are some positives in our state: Massachusetts does require PE as a class, and it requires middle and high school teachers to be certified in physical education, says Allyson Perron, senior government relations director with the AHA. “But we’re failing because there are no minutes and we allow for waivers,” she adds.
Waivers, exemptions, or substitutions allow students to bypass PE classes. For example, students can often skip gym class if they participate in an after-school sport. Unfortunately, sports don’t provide as much physical activity as one might think, such as if a student isn’t a starter on the team, says Feid, a track and football coach.
And physical education is about more than getting kids to move, he adds. “We’re trying to teach them to harbor a lifelong appreciation for activities. We want them to have skills to be active long past high school.”