Home Pro Can PE Classes Actually Contribute to Obesity?

Can PE Classes Actually Contribute to Obesity?


Virginia lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring schools to schedule 150 minutes of physical education (PE) each week. They hope that the increased amount of activity will derail the obesity juggernaut threatening to make our current generation of children the first in over 200 years to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Will mandating more PE make our children fitter? Or does this legislation merely highlight the difference between what PE really is, and what the popular conception of it is?

While there is certainly a physical fitness component to PE we often act as if that’s all there is, completely overlooking the educational aspects. The Virginia legislation is focused on fitness improvements that would result from increased activity. But what about the educational benefits; what is it that we expect students to learn in PE class and, more importantly, why should they learn it?

What students learn in PE class has a more long lasting effect on their futures than what they actually do in the class itself. PE class is one of the few places where students can learn fundamental movement skills that are essential to all physical activities. One might imagine that children could learn these basic skills in youth sport programs but in the age of early sport specialization and a growing lack of non-school recreational opportunities the full range of fundamental movement skills frequently aren’t learned. Children may become very skilled in one specific activity but remain physically illiterate in others. The phrase “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” may be an exaggerated description of someone lacking physical literacy but it’s not completely wrong. Thus the fight against obesity would be better served by reinforcing the importance of PE curricula rather than on the volume of activity students engage in throughout the week.

And then, of course, there are the children who don’t participate in youth sports at all. Without adequate PE instruction there’s a good chance that these children are doomed to a life of inactivity because even though their desire to be active may change as they get older they won’t have the movement skills necessary to be active in any meaningful way. Lack of proper PE instruction when young can set the stage for a life of inactivity. PE is one of the first and probably most important tools in the fight against obesity. Just as students must learn basic grammar and spelling to be able to communicate effectively later, PE class prepares them for a lifetime of healthy living, providing them with the basic movement education they need to participate successfully in sports and fitness exercises.

Although it’s a good start, solving the obesity problem is not as simple as forcing children into more activity or making it difficult for them to get their hands on fat- or sugar-laden snacks. While the immediate effect of more activity per week might result in improved fitness we should recognize that physical education is important all by itself and not just for some of its immediate spill-over effects. If we consider PE as the cornerstone of the foundation for physical literacy, upon which a future healthy lifestyle is built, then we may begin solving the obesity puzzle. Becoming physically literate—presumably the goal of any school’s PE program—can help put our children on a path to a future healthy lifestyle.

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William Price
Mr. Price is a faculty member at the United States Sports Academy. As a former swimming coach he served as executive director and head coach of the Saluki Swim Club in Carbondale, Illinois. He also worked in Malaysia and Brunei as part of an Academy project team focusing on developing age-appropriate sports programs.


  1. Actually PE class allow students to perform exercises which is good to their health. As they go working exercises, fats on their body are burning too. PE class cannot trigger obesity to children yet it helps their body to become fit and healthy.

  2. Well it was all for not. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell vetoed the mandatory 150 hours of of PE for children. (http://www.dailynews-record.com/opinion_details.php?AID=55896&CHID=36)

    His two main arguments apparently were that implementing this law would cost millions of dollars and that schools should not be obligated to force physical activity on students, suggesting it should be the parents responsibility.

    I agree with this decision. This law was originated by Mrs. Obama in her effort to combat childhood obesity. However, this senate bill failed to address major concerns. Most of all, the lack of financial support. Still, there is an apparent lack of actual “education” regarding physical activity, nutrition, and health that should be addressed in the classroom, not just in the gym or on a field.

    This situation further supports the idea that fighting childhood obesity is a multifaceted problem and simply passing a bill to force children to participate in 150 minutes of physical activity may not address the problem directly. Specifically, 150 minutes of physical activity will not make up for poor nutrition and other sedentary life habits.

    For example, playing basketball for 2.5 hours (150 minutes) would burn around 900 calories for a 100 pound child. A happy meal from McDonald’s with a cheeseburger, French fries, and a Coke (300+230+150) comes out to be 680 calories. Eating half (3 slices) of a 10 inch veggetarian pizza from Domino’s is around 690 calories and 3 slices of a 10 inch ExtravaganZZa pizza adds up to 870 calories.

    Basketball is considered a relatively high intensity game. Playing volleyball for the same child for 2.5 hours burns only around 450 calories. Thus, all of the meals above would do more than negate the 2.5 hours of playing volleyball.

    Nutrition is the main concern when it comes to childhood obesity, not exercise. Exercise can help slow down the rate a child becomes obese, or even stop them from getting bigger, but to truly STOP childhood obesity children need to eat right and the right amounts. The only way they will do this is through proper education for both the children and the parents. Still, parents need to demonstrate positive and healthy eating habits in order for their children to develop good eating habits. An educated child and parent can still eat bad and contribute to the problem. They key for a parent is to demonstrate healthy eating and be active, otherwise no amount of “forces physical activity” will help stop childhood obesity. But at least the government is still trying…

  3. Good points here. Until the late 1990’s students were required to take PE in high school unless they were participating in a sport or marching band. Of course this was different around the nation, but the removal of PE is a new idea, not something we have slowly been removing since the 1970’s. In fact, many public school systems were expanding their PE and recreation departments through the late 1990’s. The removal of PE is a side effect of a struggling economy coupled with poor test scores. Save money and spend more time in the classroom preparing for standardized tests…

    As Mr. Price indicated, children are not just losing the “activity” from PE, but so much more. I think it is important to understand everything that is taught and learned in PE. In agreement with this article, without PE kids may not develop the fundamental movement skills that are needed for nearly all activities. However, we shouldn’t forget that PE teaches teamwork, dedication, motivation, sharing, humility, leadership, the proper winning and losing attitudes, the history of sports, how to play different sports, etc. Sports and PE are not just about the movement, but also about the relationship between physical and psychological activity and the understanding that the mental and physical components of sports and PE can be applied every day. Working with a team to win a game is no different than working with a team to win a business contract.

    Hats off to Virginia for requiring at least 150 minutes of PE per week, but let’s not be naive, this alone will not stop or even slow the obesity problem. However, it can’t hurt to teach kids how to play different sports and force them to work as a team. We all know that in a classroom setting when working in teams that one or two people will do most of the work and it is not really a “team” effort. In PE and Sports academic grades are not based on winning and losing, but on participation, so kids feel less pressure to succeed and are willing to take chances they otherwise wouldn’t in the classroom. Case-in-point, if someone is concerned that their writing is not as good as someone else on their team they may not do any of the writing for that assignment because their teams grade may suffer, however, in PE class everyone on the team can contribute without the pressure of a grade. Sure everyone wants to win, and there will always be the stars, but PE may be the only opportunity for some children to actively participate on a team… Too many kids are going through school passively participating in teams in the classroom and never learn how to truly work as a team. Somewhere in the past decade we lost the connection between what we learn in PE and “the real world”. All we can do is fight, and it looks like the winds may be changing.

  4. The writer makes excellent points but there is yet another outstanding benefit of PE. Those who were fortunate to attend high school in the United States in the 1960’s were the beneficiaries of mandatory, daily PE, which not only inculcated fitness discipline in students but developed the habit of daily fitness, in which many of us still engage.


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