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U.S. High School Students Not Physically Active Enough


According to HealthyPeople.gov, more than 80 percent of adolescents do not engage in enough aerobic activity to meet the criteria listed in the guidelines. Among the public and private schools in this nation, only 3.8 % of elementary schools, 7.9 % of middle and junior high schools, and 2.1% of senior high schools required daily physical education in 2006.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the first Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PAG) in providing scientific information on health benefits of regular physical activity. In 2010, Healthy People 2020(HP20) outlined numerous public health objectives, including physical activity participation for youths. Some of these objectives including making positive influences through building structural environments and making legislative policies to improve access to facilities for physical activity, and setting policies on physical education in Nation’s public and private schools.

The PAG guidelines recommend that children and adolescents aged 6-17 should have 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily.  Most of that 60 or more minutes of daily physical activity, should consist of moderate or vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity. As part of the activity regimen, it should also include muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening exercise. Each category should perform at least three days per week.

According to a recent study called 2010 National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study (NYPANS) from the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and prevention (CDC), U.S. high school students in 9-12 grades not only not getting physically active enough to meet the health objectives in the guideline, drinking sugar sweetened soda or pop is prevalent in this population. The total of 9,701 public and private high school students from all 50 states and District of Columbia participated in this study. Some key findings of that study are the following:

  • 15.3% of high school students met the objective for aerobic activity (male: 21.9%; female: 8.4%)
  • 51% of high school students met the objective for muscle strengthening activity (male: 51%; female: 30.6).
  • 12.2% of high school students met both objective for aerobic and muscle strengthening activates (male: 18.5%; female: 5.8)
  • 5.8% of the female students and 18.5% of the male students met the objective for both objectives.
  • 14.1% of white students, 9.7% of black students, and 9.9% of Hispanic students met both objectives.
  • Students in higher grade has lower percentage in achieving the both objectives: 9th grade (15%), 10th grade (12.3%), 11th grade (10.7%), and 12th grade (10.3%).
  • 24.3% of the students drank a glass, can, or bottle of soda or pop daily.
  • 16.9% of the students drank a glass, can or bottle of other sweetened beverage daily.
  • 32.9% of the students drank any combination of soda or pop, sweetened beverages 2 or more times each day.

This study was the first assessment on high school students’ achievement in both aerobic and muscle strengthening activity in comparing with the guideline. The sample high school students from its population are not providing a promising benchmark.  A mere 15% of these students did aerobic activity as recommended by the guideline. Only about 12% of the male and female students met both the aerobic and anaerobic physical activity recommendation from the guideline and the percentage of students who did that dwindled consistently as they move to higher grade. Not only have these students not exercised regularly enough, the prevalence of consuming sugar sweetened beverages daily is also an issue in these adolescents.

Students’ are reluctant  to participate in physical activity could due to their confidence levels in physical abilities being low, not being aware of physical activity benefits, a lack of family or peer support, lack of choices in PE activities, and inadequate facilities for physical activity. A school-based physical activity program can contribute so much to help youth to explore different physical activity and stay physically active lifestyles through our education system. Through a policy of requiring daily physical education at school, every student from kindergarten through grade 12 could have 150 minutes to 225 minutes of exercise.

There may be many people who think it is impossible for children today to find the time for this amount of exercise.  The question adults should be asking may be whether as a nation we can afford to continue raising generations of increasingly obese citizens.


  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Physical Activity Levels of High School Students—United States, 2010. MMWR 2011/ 60(23), 773-777. http://cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6023a1.htm?s_cid=mm6023a1_w
  • HealthyPeople.gov.
  • National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion – Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Children and Adolescents. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/physicalactivity/guidelines.htm
  • U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Available at http://www.health.gov/PAGuidelines/. Accessed June 29, 2011.
  • Sy Kraft. Medical News Today. (17 June 2011). U.S. Kids Not Making Grade For Physical Education: New CDC Report.  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/228887.php
  • Rees R, Kavanagh J, Harden A, et al. Young people and physical activity: a systematic review matching their views to effective interventions. Health Educ Res 2006;21:806–25.
    Youth Physical Activity Guidelines Toolkit – The role of schools. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/physicalactivity/toolkit/factsheet_pa_guidelines_schools.pdf

Yu Hsin Li is a Graduate Assistant and doctoral student at the United States Sports Academy.  This article is typical of the research and writing done by students at the Academy.  For more information on the Academy’s programs of study, go to http://ussa.edu.


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