PE effect is zero, researchers say

Pumping up PE won’t affect obesity, concludes a British study. Children who exercise more at school do less at home. Those who get little exercise at school do more on their own.  The net effect on energy expenditure and body mass is zero.

In the end, a child will expend the same amount of energy, whether in school or out, suggesting that his level of activity is set by some kind of internal meter in the brain, said the lead researcher, Terry Wilkin, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Peninsula Medical School in the British city of Plymouth.

The research was conducted on children eight to 10 years old at three schools. Inner-city students did PE at school two hours a week;  a prep school for wealthy students provided nine hours of PE. The third school was in the middle in exercise and socioeconomics.

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  1. What it takes is parents…

    My kids are kicked outside to play at least 12 hours a week… (even in 0 degree Alaskan weather.) They all play at least two sports a year, and vegetables at dinner time are not an option.

    Video games are not to be turned on without permission, which has to be earned.

  2. As the mom of 4 full-time elite athletes, I am against ANY required PE at school; health class with first aid, CPR etc. is OK. Everything I have observed during my school days and those of my kids, the kids who need exercise the most will find a way to expend little or no energy in PE class and are very creative (sometimes aided by parents) at avoiding it whenever possible. Kids who are very active outside of school don’t need more exercise and may risk overtraining injuries, in some circumstances; I have seen it many times.

    It used to be fairly common that members of school sports teams were given PE credits for them, but I certainly wouldn’t limit such to school sports only. There are many kids who play on city or club teams. Why should someone who trains 10-25 hours a week have to take PE?

  3. As I remember from childhood, we did an AWFUL lot of “standing around” in PE class, where the teacher either told us what we were going to do, or where teams were chosen (I was frequently chosen last; I was not a fat child but I was clumsy), or where the teacher had to haul off and yell at someone for misbehaving.

    PE was my least favorite class. And I was a pretty active kid – climbed trees and ran around outside a lot and played a lot of active games after school.

  4. PE is also not a very efficient way to provide exercise for kids beginning physical maturity (which in some girls may well start by 8), because showers become necessary. If showers are not available, kids aren’t likely to do anything very active and if showers are taken, half the class is wasted on changing/showering/changing.

    BTW, all my kids hated PE. Either they didn’t like the activity (silly games etc.) or they were prevented from using the skills they had worked hard to acquire, because not all kids had them etc. Competition was severely restricted; soaring like eagles was discouraged. There were some exceptions, but that was the usual.

  5. thaprof says:

    My memories of PE: horrible, dumb teachers, almost always in dreadful shape themselves. Stupid, completely un-fun activities that involved much standing around. We got more exercise when the real teachers got sick of us and flushed us outdoors for a bonus recess.

  6. Margo/Mom says:

    My memories of phys ed match up with many others, although for a year in high school, things were somewhat better. It was a large enough school to “specialize” quite a bit. Every 9 weeks we had a rotation. We had some ability to select within a framework of 1 swim class, 1 team sport, 1 individual sport and 1 (as I recall) elective. Yes–it was hideous to expect much to happen between the time getting into those lovely blue-bloomered jump suits and the time to shower and dress again (and woe be unto those who had a first period swim class). But I have seen much worse since. My impression of the gym classes that my kids experienced is that they all involved about 80 kids in a double “gym” (with the wall opened up in the middle, and two teachers. Most of the kids are playing volley ball, but a good many are sitting on bleachers. Some of the bleachered kids are wearing hajib–which just makes one wonder exactly how much cultural sensitivity has been applied in these “co-ed classes.” As far as I can tell, the only grading criteria are whether kids “dress.” My son failed twice for not “dressing,” and the special ed director tells me this is a big problem for many of the kids who fall into the special ed category.

    So–if this is the quality–it’s not surprising that doing more of it doesn’t get any better results. And I am not surprised that the problem is defined as one that is “hard-wired” into the kids.

    Maybe the next study should take a look at quality.

  7. Foobarista says:

    I remember that Title Nine was implemented when I was in junior high school. In seventh grade, boys’ PE was running a half mile, followed by a game of flag football or basketball. Everyone was on assigned teams chosen on the first day of the semester.

    About a third of the class tried to win the Presidents’ Medal for Physical Fitness, and there were various gym-style workouts that needed to be done to do this.

    As far as I could tell, girls’ PE was similar; they just used separate fields.

    Then, in eighth grade, The District decreed that we mix the classes, and they were severely watered down – and ended up being the sit on your heinie and stare at each other, and maybe run for a couple of minutes at the end thing everyone else is describing.

  8. As a PE and Health teacher by certification the reasons you all list above are one of the main motivations I had when choosing this specialty. Today after teaching for almost five years I have seen a lot of teachers in my profession debunking “the old” mis-educative experiences in PE of the past and replacing them with solid research based practices that truly are give students the chance to be active, understand the benefits of adopting a healthful lifestyle and most importantly modeling what they teach. However there are a lot that are still doing what you all recall.

    Adding more of the same old same old has not and will not get student intrinsically motivated to combat the societal pressures that excuse the pun “weigh” heavily on students ability to maintain a weight level under what is considered obese. What is being taught in PE is what needs to change to change waistlines not more of what is already known to be ineffective.

  9. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Perhaps some accountability is required. A nationally normed PE test would clearly show us which schools are failing and which are models of PE accountability. Clearly the Germans, Japanese and Singaporians are much further ahead in PE achievement than we are.

  10. I’d be wary of national PE tests. The military has had fitness testing for decades, but the flexibility test has caused some problems. It is easy for most women, but many men have had injuries from the effort, since they are generally less flexible.

    Also, there seems to be some confusion about the reason schools have PE; is it to increase fitness in kids or is it a jobs program for PE teachers? I am serious; in two different states, the issue of needing fewer teachers has been raised as a reason not to decrease PE requirements (either by reducing the number of required classes or by giving PE credits for JV/varsity athletes). Lots of athletes could pass any reasonable test, without taking PE classes, but I’d bet against that being allowed. Even if is allowed on paper, it will be gamed such that the option really won’t exist. I have seen it before, where PE exemptions are allowed on paper, but never happen in practice.

    As with most things, I’m against a one-size-fits-all approach, which seems to be what public schools want – and do – in most areas, most of the time.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    Phys Ed teachers are not unique in the world of work in flying into a panic when their jobs are threatened. I forget whose suggestion I read recently that leaned in the direction of contracting physical ed services from folks like the local parks and rec people. Seemed like a good idea for me–it would mean some increased prestige and greater likelihood of full time regular employment for those folks. But, it would mean some people suffling–and folks who work in schools currently are likely to be mistrustful of shifting employment to another entitity. But, it does really enlarge some of the possibilities for things like after-school/summer coordination.

  12. I guess most of the commenters here have the same feelings about PE that I used to have based on my personal experiences.

    But from what I’ve learned from seeing PE properly implemented in a nearby district, PE is first and foremost *education*, not exercising, at least at the elementary school level. Especially when the PE curriculum is properly integrated with the curriculum of the other elementary teachers.

    My grandkids are learning and doing stuff in PE that makes me envious.

  13. I remember the President’s Fitness test. Even though I couldn’t “win” it (no arm strength – could not do even the girly watered-down type of pull up), I still enjoyed it more than the rest of PE. Because it was a personal challenge. (And I was one of the few girls in the class would could do the requisite number of situps in the time allotted)

    I think if they made PE more into “training,” where they had things like Parcours set-ups, or stuff kids could work on at their own pace, maybe more kids would like it? I hated a lot of the “team” stuff because it seemed like it took half the class period to get teams chosen up.

  14. None of my sons were able to get the Presidential Fitness Award because they couldn’t pass the sit-and-reach portion, even though they aced the other parts.(see my post above about the military fitness test and male flexibility) They were all highly fit, aerobic, elite athletes. One was described by his coach, in a newspaper article, as the most fit player he had coached. My daughter did get the Presidential award, but she said that only once was she REALLY able to be close to the sit-and-reach qualification; the teachers fudged the results other years, because she was one of the few girls who could ace the strength parts.

  15. I hated PE as a child. But the PE my elementary school children have is vastly different and a valuable learning experience. They also get 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise everyday. When they play sports with kids from other schools, there is marked difference in the fitness level between the children from my kids’ school and the other children.

  16. I accept that there are well-designed PE classes and I support them being offered for those who choose. What I have not heard is a convincing argument for requiring PE for kids who are already involved in a significant exercise program or sport, either on a school team or outside of school. I do not believe that any student should be required to tutor other students or be assigned to a class or school in order to benefit some other student(s), and that is the most-frequently-advanced justification I have been offered; that the fit and the talented athletes should help and inspire others, just as the best students should. How do others feel about requiring PE for an athlete who already trains 15-25 hours a week? or even 10 hours?

  17. Margo/Mom says:


    You are right–we lack flexibility in determining goals and how to reach them. We are wed to “the Carnegie unit” (a measure of “seat time”) in determining if kids “get” things, rather than any specific measures of learning or accomplishment. Same deal with kids who are bilingual, already, when they arrive at high school. I am not opposed to them being offered the opportunity to pick up a third language–but we should have a means to “give them credit” for the language that they already know–that is if the objective really is to learn a language, rather than to take classes.

  18. When it comes to fighting obesity, kids learn from the example that parents set. If mom reads, they’ll read. If dad eats healthy food, they ‘ll eat healthy food. And if mom exercises regularly, so will they. I think what this study proves is that schools can only do so much to change behaviors learned at home.