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Health Objectives for the Nation Participation of High School Students in School Physical Education -- United States, 1990

Regular physical activity increases a person's ability to perform daily activities with greater vigor and may reduce the risk for specific health problems, including coronary heart disease (1), hypertension (2), noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (3), colon cancer (4), and depression (5), as well as lower all-cause death rates (6). In addition to extracurricular activities (e.g., sports and recreational organizations), high school physical education (PE) classes provide an opportunity to ensure a minimal, regular amount of desirable physical activity and help establish physical activity patterns that may extend into adulthood. This report examines the prevalence of self-reported enrollment, attendance, and participation in PE classes by students in grades 9-12.

The national school-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is a component of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which periodically measures the prevalence of priority health-risk behaviors among youth through comparable national, state, and local surveys (7). In the 1990 national school-based YRBS, a three-stage sample design was used to obtain a representative sample of 11,631 students in grades 9-12 in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Students were asked 1) if they were enrolled in PE classes, 2) how many days they had attended PE classes during the past 2 weeks, and 3) during how many PE classes they had engaged in at least 20 minutes of light to heavy exercise during the past 2 weeks.

Of all students in grades 9-12, 43.5% of males and 52.0% of females reported that they were not enrolled in PE classes (Table 1). In addition, 21.5% of students (males, 24.1%; females, 19.0%) reported that they attended PE classes daily. Daily attendance in PE classes decreased substantially from 9th grade through 12th grade (9th grade, 34.4%; 10th grade, 25.7%; 11th grade, 15.1%; and 12th grade, 10.9%).

Of students who reported attending PE class during the past 2 weeks, about one third (33.2%) reported exercising 20 minutes or more in PE class three to five times per week (Table 2). Almost one fourth (23.4%) reported that they did not exercise 20 minutes or more during any PE class. Females (28.5%) were significantly more likely than males (18.6%) to report not exercising 20 minutes or more during any PE class during the past 2 weeks. Reported by: Div of Chronic Disease Control and Community Intervention, Div of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: One of the national health promotion and disease prevention objectives for the year 2000 (objective 1.8) is to "increase to at least 50 percent the proportion of children and adolescents in 1st through 12th grade who participate in daily school physical education" (8). The findings in this report indicate that, to attain this objective, the percentage of 9th-12th-grade students attending daily PE classes must markedly increase. However, enrollment in PE, a necessary prerequisite for attendance in PE classes, may have decreased (Figure 1), from a total of 65% in 1984 to 48% in 1990 (based on a comparison of findings in this report with results from the 1984 National Children and Youth Fitness Study (9)).

To develop healthy physical activity patterns, students must not only attend PE classes but also engage in physical activity during those classes. Specifically, national health objective 1.9 aims to "increase to at least 50 percent the proportion of school physical education class time that students spend being physically active, preferably engaged in lifetime physical activities" (8). Findings in this report indicate that the amount of PE class time devoted to physical activity is substantially below this goal.

To improve the health of youth through PE, parents, teachers, school administrators, school board members, pediatricians, family physicians, and public health officials need to implement policies that ensure every student's enrollment and participation in daily PE programs and develop programs that provide at least 20 minutes of daily physical activity (10).


  1. Powell KE, Thompson PD, Caspersen CJ, Kendrick JS. Physical activity and the incidence of coronary heart disease. Annu Rev Public Health 1987;8:253-87.

  2. Paffenbarger RS Jr, Wing AL, Hyde RT, Jung DL. Physical activity and incidence of hypertension in college alumni. Am J Epidemiol 1983;117:245-57.

  3. Helmrich SP, Ragland DR, Leung RW, Paffenbarger RS Jr. Physical activity and reduced occurrence of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. N Engl J Med 1991;325:147-52.

  4. Kohl HW, LaPorte RE, Blair SN. Physical activity and cancer: an epidemiological perspective. Sports Med 1988;6:222-37.

  5. Taylor CB, Sallis JF, Needle R. The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public Health Rep 1985;100:195-202.

  6. Paffenbarger RS Jr, Hyde RT, Wing AL, Hsieh CC. Physical activity, all-cause mortality, and longevity of college alumni. N Engl J Med 1986;314:605-13.

  7. Kolbe LJ. An epidemiological surveillance system to monitor the prevalence of youth behaviors that most affect health. Health Education 1990;21:44-7.

  8. Public Health Service. Healthy people 2000: national health promotion and disease prevention objectives--full report, with commentary. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1991:101-3; DHHS publication no. (PHS)91-50212.

  9. Ross JG, Dotson CO, Gilbert GG, Katz SJ. The National Children and Youth Fitness Study: what are kids doing in school physical education? Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance 1985;56:73-6.

  10. Sallis JF, McKenzie TL. Physical education's role in public health. Research Quarterly in Exercise and Sports Sciences 1991;62:124-37.

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