In 2013, just over one-quarter of Michigan children ages 6 to 17 participated in vigorous physical activity every day, despite the federal recommendation for 60 minutes of physical activity daily.   Not only are children not engaging in vigorous physical activity, but they are engaging in high amounts of sedentary activity.  Over one-third of Michigan high school students played video or computer games or were on a computer for three or more hours per day.  Over one-quarter of high school students watched television for at least three hours per day.  And while these figures are at or below national averages, they are not exactly worth bragging about.

Physical inactivity is a risk factor for obesity and regular physical activity is linked to improved student concentration, cognitive functioning, and classroom behavior as well as improved academic and standardized test performance.  If public policy is to be used to effectively prevent obesity and treat it in children, it needs to address both diet and physical activity, as both of these factors influence health.  Schools have a long history of providing health and physical education curricula and now, more than ever, these two subjects are needed.

The Revised School Code mandates that, “Health and physical education for pupils of both sexes shall be established and provided in all public schools of this state. . . .Each pupil attending public school in this state who is physically fit and capable of doing so shall take the course in physical education.”  When the school code was first drafted in 1976, authors understood the importance of health and physical education, though obesity was not yet a looming issue.

While this statute is specific about the need for health and physical education, it does not specify how this mandate must be carried out.  The Michigan Merit Curriculum requires that high school students complete 0.5 credits in each physical education and health education in order to graduate.  However, state statute allows for several exemptions for this requirement, including an allowance of credit for participation in extracurricular activities.  This unfortunately waters down much of the benefit of the original requirement since students are better off if they engage in physical activity both during the school day and afterward.

While some health and physical education criteria is spelled out for high school students, Michigan statute does not similarly provide companion law or rules for grades K-8.  The Grade Level Content Expectations developed by the Michigan Department of Education and approved by the State Board of Education set out learning and activity objectives but do not specify how much time children must spend in physical activity. Importantly, the content and frequency are recommendations, not requirements.

Schools are also not required to provide a recess, though the State Board of Education recommends that public schools provide opportunity for 30 minutes of physical activity outside of physical education, including at least 20 minutes of scheduled recess.

According to a 2012 nationwide survey, fewer than 60 percent of school districts required that elementary schools provide students with regularly scheduled recess and only 11 percent required middle schools to provide physical activity breaks outside of physical education class.  To help Michigan’s children develop to the fullness of their potential, these statistics are just not good enough.  While school, state, and local leaders are engaged in this process, more still needs to be done to generate noticeable results that improve individuals’ quality of life and the economic status of families and communities.

For more information about Michigan’s health and physical education programs and how public policy can improve these courses, see Citizens Research Council’s new report Addressing Michigan’s Obesity Problem.

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