Grade: Needs Improvement

Jul 09, 2014 at 04:12 pm by Staff

Report card highlights deficits in children’s physical activity

Remember when P.E. was the ‘easy A’ in school? Evidently that’s no longer true.

The 2014 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children & Youth highlights just how far the country has fallen off the honor roll when it comes to getting our school-aged kids to move and play. “You wouldn’t want to bring this one home,” Russell Pate, PhD, said of the report card.

Chairman of the National Physical Activity Plan (NPAP) Alliance and a member of the report card research advisory committee, Pate noted, “There certainly has been a concern for some time that American children are not as active as they used to be and not as active as they should be.”

That concern is not only for the toll inactivity takes on youth during their childhood but also the larger, and longer, impact of contributing to chronic conditions. “It’s very clear that low levels of physical activity are associated with disadvantageous health profiles,” Pate stated. “Not only are they at risk of becoming overweight as children and adolescents, but they are signing up for health problems that will manifest down the line.”

The alliance, a coalition of national organizations and experts committed to ensuring success of the NPAP, created the report card as a baseline measure to assess evidence-based improvement strategies. “The overall picture here … although not positive … does point the way forward and shows us how we can do better in the future,” continued Pate, a professor in the Department of Exercise Science and director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group at the University of South Carolina.

In addition to assessing levels of physical activity and sedentary behaviors, the report card also sought to highlight barriers keeping American children from optimal levels of active living. The goal is to raise awareness among parents, providers, educators, community leaders and policymakers and bring stakeholders together to improve youth fitness.

“We know we’re in bad shape, but we don’t exactly know what areas need attention. I think from a policy standpoint the report card helps move that forward,” said Scott Crouter, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation & Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville.

Crouter, who also serves on the report card advisory committee, added not every plan plays out as expected. “There are policies in place that support physical activity and require P.E. in school,” he pointed out. “Greater than 90 percent of schools are requiring P.E. to be taught, but only about 50 percent of children are attending P.E. classes once a week,” Crouter added of high school students.

The highest grade given was a B- in the category of the built environment and community resources. The worst score, an F, was given for active transportation.

Since 1969, the percentage of elementary and middle school students walking or biking to school has fallen 25 points from 47.7 percent in 1969 to 12.7 percent by 2009. Not surprisingly, proximity played a key role in active transportation. Although many children face long commutes to school that necessitate a car or bus, the low numbers for biking and walking hold true when looking at children who lived two miles or less from school. “We see that once you get past about half a mile from the school, walking or biking decreases dramatically,” Crouter said.

Even when distance makes active transportation difficult, however, Crouter noted there are innovative ideas to increase movement. One example, he said, is to position parking lots or drop-off points a half-mile to mile away from the school building to encourage walking. Other deterrents that need to be addressed include safety concerns and a lack of sidewalks. “It’s really about changing the environment and how we do things,” Crouter said.

As for the built environment, Pate noted, “Most American kids do live proximal to a park or green space where they could engage in physical activity. The problem is we’re not taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Girls also tend to be even less active than boys. “In some cases, girls are socialized in a way that places less emphasis on physical activity and organized sports programs,” Pate said. He added Title IX certainly helped make sports more attainable for girls. However, he continued, “Even with that progress, there’s still a pretty pronounced gender gap.”

When grading sedentary behaviors, the team used the primary indicator of two hours or less of screen time per day, which is in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. Although about half the children in America ages 6-11 do adhere to this recommendation, significant ethnic disparities exist, which resulted in the grade of D.

Sedentary behavior included both leisure time (watching television or playing a screen-based game) and productive time (reading on a screen or using the computer for homework). It should be noted that the negative effects associated with leisure time sedentary behavior have not been observed with productive sedentary behavior. The research team noted future studies should examine the two types of screen time independently to determine health impact.

Pate stressed the research team was sensitive to screen requirements for homework, but he said that really isn’t the problem. “Kids are spending way too much time in front of screens that really have nothing to do with academic learning,” he asserted. The average time per day American youth spent in sedentary pursuits was 7.1 hours.

Despite the poor grades, both Pate and Crouter found a silver lining in the report card. “The good news is now we have a document that pulls everything together and gives us a starting point,” said Crouter. “It helps support where we need to go next, and it gives us the fuel to do that.” He continued, “It’s not about failing grades and putting blame in any one place. It’s not about blame at this point. It’s where we are so let’s make it better.

Pate concurred, “The report card points out the severity and nature of the problem.” He added the information gathered would be used to review and revise the NPAP. “In late 2015, we expect to release the second iteration of the plan,” he said.

In the meantime, Pate concluded, “There absolutely is no substitute for parents being attentive to this issue.”

The Grades


Overall Physical Activity


Sedentary Behaviors


Active Transportation


Organized Sport Participation


Active Play


Health-Related Fitness


Family & Peers




Community & The Built Environment


Government Strategies & Investments


An incomplete was given in areas where there is currently insufficient information available to establish a grade.



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