With concerns about childhood obesity weighing on the minds of parents and educators, physical education is taking on new importance. The good news is that P.E. class is still part of most kids’ school experience. “One of the things that hasn’t really changed over time,” says Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), “is the fact that most schools in the U.S. offer physical education to students.”

But whether kids are receiving enough physical education is another matter. Experts recommend that elementary school students spend 30 minutes each school day in physical education. But, according to the American Heart Association, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 7 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education class for the entire school year; 22 percent of schools don’t require physical education class at all.

The benefits of physical education class are far-reaching. According to NASPE, a regular P.E. class not only improves kids’ strength, flexibility, and endurance, it can reduce stress, strengthen peer relationships, and improve self-confidence. In school, the benefits of gym class extend to reading and math. “When kids get moving, and they have their blood pumping, and have different body chemicals that are released it helps increase alertness and mental capacity,” says Burgeson.

And those benefits take on more significance when considering that the Department of Health and Human Service reports 20 percent of kids in the US will be obese by 2010. In response to these frightening estimates, some states are working to increase the amount of physical education in schools. A new bill in Oklahoma will require elementary schools to provide students with one hour of physical activity each week. The governor of Florida recently signed a law requiring middle schools to provide a physical education class for at least one semester of the school year. And, in Virginia, local school boards are required to provide 150 minutes of physical fitness each week for all students.

But all those measures would be a drop in the bucket compared a new piece of legislation introduced this summer called the Fitness Integrated with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act. If passed, the act would require that schools include information about physical education in annual report cards, and would fund innovative ways to increase physical activities in school.

The bill is currently in committee, and will be included with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which won’t make it through either the House or Senate until 2009. In the meantime, there are things that you can do to advocate for physical education in your child’s school.

  • First, know that P.E. class, formerly known as “gym” class is more than play time or recess. P.E., just like any other subject, teaches kids skills and abilities—in this case they can use what they’ve learned to construct an active and healthy lifestyle.
  • Ask your child what she’s doing in gym class: is she spending most of her time moving? “That may seem like a basic question, but it’s not.” says Russell Pate, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. “We know from many studies that in some physical education programs kids stand around a lot more than they actually move.” He also suggests asking your child if she’s having fun, and if she’s learning lots of different sports and skills.
  • To get an even better idea of what’s going on, sit in on a class. Use the forms on the NASPE web site to get a feel for the quality of your school’s program.
  • If you’re interested in promoting the FIT Kids Act, contact your congressperson and ask your school to do the same, because, says Pate, “legislators, whether they’re at state or federal level, are reluctant to pass legislation that the professionals may not support.” Learn more about the bill at fitkidsact.org.