PE classes vital to children's physical and mental health


Photo: Students work out on the rowing machine during PE class

Childhood obesity is prevalent in the United States – more than 14 million children are considered obese – and that national health problem has gotten even worse over the past two years.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that childhood obesity rose significantly around the nation during the pandemic. Experts say much of that increase can be attributed to schools being closed and children not having access to PE classes and the equipment and areas of play they ordinarily would.

Rebecca Dudovitz, MD, associate professor of general pediatrics, says physical education classes are key for helping children maintain their overall health.

“It’s fair to say that more physical education time could help fight the obesity epidemic. The need for that became greater after the pandemic,” Dr. Dudovitz said.

“Two things got universally worse for many children and families during the pandemic and that was obesity and mental health,” she said. “Exercise is a key component for recovering from and preventing obesity and it’s a key part of coping with and preventing mental health problems.”

Mental health benefits

Dr. Dudovitz, a parent herself, said working with physical education teachers showed her the importance of PE beyond just exercise.

“It’s truly an area of learning where there are core educational standards and many of those PE standards are around developing social-emotional skills,” she said. “Data and research shows that exercise improves school performance and, in fact, children have an easier time focusing and learning after they have exercised.

“As parents, we need to think about the role that PE plays in our child’s education and lives,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re advocating for enough PE minutes. Sometimes, I think PE gets de-emphasized and parents are often advocating for other educational opportunities. Meanwhile, our PE resources are kind of fading away.”

Schools in California and other areas of the U.S. are changing the format of traditional PE classes

Changing the PE format

Ancient are the days when the gym teacher strolled into class sporting short-shorts and a polo shirt with the school colors and a sack full of dodge balls. Programs such as UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind have helped shape a new era of physical education.

Providing state-of-the-art fitness equipment and fitness resources to more than 140 middle schools and high schools across Los Angeles, Sound Body Sound Mind has raised the bar on what gym class can look like.

From stationary indoor cycling bikes, to cable machines, row machines, and many other pieces of fitness equipment, Sound Body Sound Mind has transformed PE programs at certain schools with resources that provide access for students and support a more holistic approach to health and wellness.

Matt Flesock, executive director of Sound Body Sound Mind, says movement and exercise are essential for a child’s overall development.

“Physical activity has been shown to improve students’ academic performance, social-emotional learning and mental health,” Flesock said. “The benefits are incredible.”

Sound Body Sound Mind, which is dedicated to promoting self-confidence and healthy lifestyle choices among youth, continued to assist families and communities during the pandemic by ensuring students could incorporate movement into their daily academic programs despite distanced learning.

“I think Sound Body Sound Mind has done an amazing job on two fronts,” Dr. Dudovitz said.

“One, it’s giving schools and families the resources they need to exercise and that included fitness kits when families were stuck at home and schools were closed,” she said. “Secondly, Sound Body Sound Mind helps to decrease the barriers to working out, especially for kids who don’t view themselves as athletes by creating a safe place and safe space for students who are less experienced at working out.”

For children who are exempt from physical education classes due to health conditions, parents can still find ways to make sure their children are getting the exercise they need.

Parents can ask for a 504 plan, which provides students with disabilities extra support or accommodations they need in school. Schools can then provide students with an individualized exercise plan or an adaptive PE program.

“As pediatricians, we often work with schools and parents to support them in developing and executing those plans. We also make sure children with medical problems still get their exercise,” Dr. Dudovitz explained. “For example, children in wheelchairs or with physical disabilities need to move their muscles and they need that physical movement because it’s vital to their overall health.”

Is physical education enough to keep students healthy?

The California Department of Education requires 400 minutes of physical education every 10 days for students in grades 7-12 and 200 minutes for students in grades 1-6. Yet, California ranks No. 28 out of 50 states when it comes to childhood obesity.

Flesock noted that the mandates for physical education are not enough to keep children healthy.

“Children need to move 60 minutes a day, every day,” Flesock said. “That is the recommendation. When you look at the California school mandate, that’s not enough time: 400 minutes every 10 days or 200 minutes every five days. That is not equivalent to 60 minutes a day.”

However, some people question whether schools should bear all the responsibility of making sure students meet the suggested 60 minutes of physical activity daily. If not, this would mean that parents, or students themselves, would need to make sure they are getting enough physical activity throughout the day.

That is easier said than done for many families. Dr. Dudovitz and Flesock acknowledge that for many children, PE class is the only time exclusively set aside for exercise. That’s particularly true for children who do not have access to safe places to play outside of school. Families of students in underserved communities may not have the same resources or privileges of a safe environment for exercise in their neighborhood.

Flesock and his staff at UCLA Sound Body Sound Mind are continuously working on solutions to help schools, families and students in underrepresented communities get the resources they need to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Introducing strength and agility training into PE classes helps students develop confidence in working out and keeping their bodies fit.

Role of the parent

Dr. Dudovitz said parents have always had the important duty of making sure their child’s health was a priority. What’s changed over the generations, she said, is that the forces working against a healthy lifestyle have become so strong that it takes a concerted effort to fight against them.

“We see that there is a McDonald's or Starbucks on every corner and instead of getting out, we have Zoom calls and video games. It makes it so easy to fall into an unhealthy routine,” she said. “All of these push against a healthy lifestyle and it takes more of an effort to maintain healthy practices.”

Making sure your child focuses on fitness outside of physical education classes is possible, but requires commitment and follow-through from parent and child. Here are some steps parents can take:

  • Carve out daily time for physical activity
  • Use fun competition as a motivator
  • Incorporate nutrition (a healthy diet reinforces performance and ambition to stay fit)
  • Encourage your child to join a sports program or organized after-school fitness activity
  • Limit time on video games and cell phones

Dr. Dudovitz says parents have a responsibility to instill the importance of being healthy within their child, but the onus can’t be totally on them.

“We need to advocate for healthier systems within the schools, for funding and structures to be in place equitably if we want to have a healthy generation,” she said.

If you want more information about creating a healthy lifestyle for your child, please visit the Sound Body Sound Mind page.