Priority Policy

School-Based Physical Education and Physical Activity

Helping all children get 60 minutes of physical activity every day

Experts recommend at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children. Physical activity provides important benefits for children, such as reducing the risk of obesity, building strong bones and muscles, and improving academic performance. Research has found a benefit of more than $32 for every $1 invested in school-based physical activity and physical education (PE) programs, such as reduced healthcare costs and increased labor participation. Despite these findings, there are no federal requirements for school-based PE or physical activity and few states require a minimum weekly amount of time spent in PE or physical activity.

Students take part in an outdoor yoga class at Goldsboro Elementary.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which authorizes federal education programs, promotes school-based PE and physical activity in multiple ways, such as expanding the federal definition of a well-rounded education to include physical education; allowing federal funds to train classroom teachers and other school personnel on how to incorporate physical activity breaks into the classroom; permitting the integration of PE-related measures into their state report cards; and requiring that PE or physical activity programs be used as indicators of school quality in school accountability plans.

In addition to ESSA, the Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages schools to help students get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity, while Physical Activity Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provide guidance for policymakers and health professionals on the types of physical activity with the most health benefits.


The following recommendations regarding school-based physical education come from State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier Future, 2018, produced by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

• U.S. Department of Education should maintain the Office of Safe and Healthy Schools, as well as Title I and Title IV programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), through which schools can receive funding for physical education and physical activity initiatives.

• States should ensure that all students receive at least 60 minutes of physical education or activity during each school day.


Shape of the Nation Report

The 2016 “Shape of the Nation” report provides a state-by-state review of physical education across the country. Topline findings include: nearly all states set standards for physical education programs, though only Oregon and Washington, D.C., require schools to meet the national standards for physical education at both the elementary and middle-school levels; most states require students to participate in PE throughout their elementary and secondary education, with 39 states requiring it for elementary school students, 37 states requiring it for middle schoolers, and 44 states requiring it for high school students; few states set any minimum amount of time that elementary (19), middle school (15), and high school students (6) must participate in PE; and only 15 states set aside additional funding to support their PE programs.

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The Role of Recess

Research demonstrates that children benefit in a variety of ways from having time for physically active free play or “recess” during the school day. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) specifically credits recess with helping students meet their recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. However, only five states–Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Virginia–require daily recess in elementary schools. In 2017, the CDC and SHAPE America published Strategies for Recess in Schools, recommending at least 20 minutes of recess daily for elementary students, and a period of daily physical activity for middle and high school students in addition to PE and in-class physical activity.

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Carol M. White Physical Education Program

From 2001 to 2015, the Carol M. White Physical Education Program provided approximately $989 million in grants to local school districts and community-based organizations to start, expand, or enhance PE programs for K-12 students. In its final year, $47 million in grants helped over 197,000 students across the country exercise more through efforts such as the implementation of “health lifestyle” programs, creation of new PE programs such as wall climbing, “Adventure Ed” and dance classes, and increased nutrition education.

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Fast Facts


Less than 30 percent of high school students attend physical education classes on all five days of the school week.

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The median PE budget is $764 per school, per school year.

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An extra 60 minutes per week in gym class reduced fifth-graders’ likelihood of obesity by 4.8%.

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Originally posted in August 2018.