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Participation in High School Physical Education --- Ontario, Canada, 1999--2005

School-based physical education (PE) programs provide regular and structured opportunities for youths to participate in moderate or vigorous physical activities that help meet the Canadian public health recommendation for 90 minutes of daily physical activity (1). To examine prevalence and trends in PE participation among high school students (i.e., grades 9--12) in Ontario, Canada, during 1999--2005, researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph analyzed data from the Ontario Student Drug Use Survey (OSDUS). This report describes the results of that analysis, which indicated a significant linear decrease from 1999 to 2005 in the percentage of students who were enrolled in PE. Female and older students were least likely to be enrolled in PE and to participate in vigorous physical activity during the average PE class. As in the United States, coordinated programs involving schools, communities, and policy makers are needed to provide effective PE for all youths in Ontario (2).

Data for this study were collected from four biennial cycles of OSDUS conducted during 1999--2005. OSDUS is a cross-sectional survey conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health since 1977 to assess the prevalence of health risk behaviors among youths in Ontario, Canada (3). In each of the four OSDUS surveys, respondents were selected using a two-stage cluster sample with a probability design that permitted representative sampling of all students in grades 9--12 who attended publicly funded schools in Ontario. The two stages of sample selection consisted of schools and classes, both of which were stratified by region and type of school. The total sample for the study described in this report consisted of 13,260 students in grades 9--12 who completed self-administered, anonymous questionnaires in the classroom during a regular class period under the supervision of trained data collectors every 2 years during 1999--2005. In 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2005, sample sizes were 1,495, 1,278, 4,693, and 5,794, respectively; student completion rates were 76%, 71%, 72%, and 72%, respectively; and school participation rates were 90%, 74%, 88%, and 95%, respectively. During 1999--2005, response rates by grade ranged from 70% to 77% for grade 9, from 68% to 76% for grade 10, from 68% to 73% for grade 11, and from 68% to 76% for grade 12. The survey questions, which were adapted from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) cited in U.S. reports (2,4), were as follows: 1) "Are you in enrolled in a PE class?" (defined as attending a PE class on 1 or more days in an average week when in school), 2) "Do you attend PE daily?" (defined as attending PE class for 5 days in an average week when in school), and 3) "On how many of the last 5 school days did you participate in physical activity for at least 20 minutes that made you sweat and breathe hard in physical education class in your school?" (defined as reporting >20 minutes of vigorous physical activity during an average PE class 3--5 days per week). All four OSDUS surveys were approved by the Research Ethics Board of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

All analyses used Taylor series methods to account for the complex sample design. Prevalence estimates and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for each of the three PE-related behaviors were calculated for each survey year by sex and grade. Logistic regression models were used to analyze the independent effects of sex and grade. To analyze temporal trends, time was treated as a continuous variable with both linear and nonlinear components.

During 1999--2005, male students were significantly more likely than female students to be enrolled in PE, attend PE class daily, and participate in vigorous physical activity during the average PE class (Table). Students in the 9th and 10th grades were significantly more likely to engage in each of the three PE-related behaviors than 12th-grade students. In addition, 11th-grade students were significantly more likely than 12th-grade students to be enrolled in PE class.

Overall, despite some yearly variation, a significant linear decrease (b=-0.05, p=0.016) was observed for enrollment in PE during 1999--2005. The overall percentage of students enrolled in PE decreased from 70.3% in 1999 to 60.3% in 2005 (Table). Similar linear decreases also were observed among sex and grade subgroups. During 1999--2005, the prevalence of students attending PE daily indicated no significant linear trend overall or among sex and grade subgroups (Table). These prevalence estimates were based on the total student population (i.e., both those who were enrolled and those who were not enrolled in PE class). However, among only those students who were enrolled in PE class, a significant overall linear increase (b=0.05, p=0.032) was detected for attending PE class daily; the percentage of students who attended PE class daily increased significantly, from 21.3% in 1999 to 26.9% in 2005. Similar linear increases were detected among sex and grade subgroups. During 1999--2005, the prevalence of participation in vigorous physical activity during an average PE class among those enrolled in PE overall and among all sex and grade subgroups did not change significantly (Table).

Reported by: G Faulkner, J Goodman, Faculty of Physical Education and Health, E Adlaf, H Irving, K Allison, Dept of Public Health Sciences, Univ of Toronto; J Dwyer, Dept of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, Univ of Guelph, Canada.

Editorial Note:

Similar to the United States, the prevalences of overweight and obesity in Canada increased during 1985--2003 (5), and this increase was particularly pronounced in children (6). Physical inactivity might be one factor contributing to this trend. The school setting is recognized as a place where all children can participate in health-enhancing physical activity regardless of socioeconomic status and family influences. In Ontario, the prevalence of enrollment in PE class declined during 1999--2005, whereas no change occurred in the prevalence of participation in vigorous physical activity during the average PE class among those enrolled in PE. In comparison, U.S. trends suggest no overall changes in either of these measures (2,4). Further comparison suggests increases in daily PE attendance in Ontario for students enrolled in PE classes, compared with decreases among those enrolled in PE classes in the United States. Similar trends were observed among female students and students in higher grades, who had lower enrollment and less active participation in PE.

The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations. First, these data only pertain to students at publicly funded high schools in Ontario and might not be representative of all high school students in Canada. Second, because OSDUS data are self-reported, the extent of underreporting or overreporting cannot be ascertained. However, the YRBS questions on which OSDUS is directly based have demonstrated test-retest reliability among U.S. youths (7).

PE provides one of many ways for students to be physically active. However, the results of this report indicate that more focused intervention is needed to address the participation of youths, particularly females and older youths. The findings also underscore the need for development of strategies to ensure that PE is appealing and available to students. This will require collaborative partnerships among students, schools, communities, researchers, and policy makers (2).


  1. Canada's physical activity guides for children and youth. Ottawa, Canada: Health Canada; 2002. Available at
  2. CDC. Participation in high school physical education---United States, 1991--2003. MMWR 2004;53:844--7.
  3. Adlaf EM, Paglia-Boak A. Drug use among Ontario students: detailed OSDUS findings, 1977--2005. Toronto, Canada: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; 2005.
  4. CDC. Youth risk behavior surveillance---United States, 2005. MMWR 2006;55(No. SS-5).
  5. Katzmarzyk PT, Mason C. Prevalence of class I, II and III obesity in Canada. CMAJ 2006;174:156--7.
  6. Tremblay MS, Katzmarzyk PT, Willms JD. Temporal trends in overweight and obesity in Canada, 1981--1996. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002;26:538--43.
  7. Brener ND, Kann L, McManus T, Kinchen SA, Sundberg EC, Ross JG. Reliability of the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey questionnaire. J Adolesc Health 2002;31:336--42.


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Date last reviewed: 1/24/2007


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