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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - According to a new nationwide survey of elementary school principals, kids are more likely to get the recommended amount of recess and physical education if they live in states or districts with policies that call for more of those types of activity.
However, more than half of states and districts didn't require regular PE classes, and few made daily recess mandatory or even suggested it.
And schools that did meet national recommendations for either recess or PE tended to skimp on the other -- suggesting that policy makers need to recognize the value of both activities for physical health and learning, researchers said.
"There are a lot of competing demands right now," said lead author Sandy Slater, from the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There's a lot to address during the school day. It's also obviously important to try to address physical activity in some way, shape or form."
The findings, Slater told Reuters Health, suggest that even in states that don't have specific regulations on PE and recess, individual districts can make a difference by prioritizing those activities.
She and her colleagues surveyed principals at close to 1,800 elementary schools in 47 states during the 2006 through 2009 school years. Principals were asked how often the average third grader at their school had PE class, and for how long, as well as the amount of time normally allocated for recess.
Slater and her colleagues then compared those survey responses with state laws and district policies requiring or suggesting PE and recess in accordance with recommendations endorsed by the American Heart Association -- which call for two and a half hours of PE per week and 20 minutes of recess every day.
Only eight states suggested or required third graders get daily recess. Twenty-three, or just under half, had any laws on PE classes, and only six of those required at least two and a half hours a week.
Other states required less PE time, or suggested schools give kids the full two and a half hours but didn't make it mandatory.
About 70 percent of schools did offer third graders recess every day, and 18 percent of principals said kids had the recommended amount of weekly PE.
Schools were more than twice as likely to meet PE recommendations if they were in states or districts that required it.
Being in a state that encouraged recess also increased the chance that kids would get enough of it.
However, schools that offered the recommended amount of recess were less likely to fulfill weekly PE recommendations -- and vice versa.
What's more, schools with mostly minority and poorer kids were less likely to have daily recess, the researchers reported Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
More physical activity time has been linked to better thinking and memory skills and better concentration in the classroom, Slater said.
Doctors are also pushing exercise as a way to slow growing rates of childhood obesity.
Amy Eyler, a physical activity and policy researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed that it makes sense that having time to run around and getting fresh air is good for kids.
But until there's definitive evidence showing that getting enough PE and recess raises test scores and grades, a lot of school districts won't set aside the facilities and the staff to make it happen, she added.
"It's not seen as something that's a priority," Eyler, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
She said the new research suggests that when states and districts do take action on physical activity recommendations, kids see the benefits.
"The message is that policies at the state level trickle down all the way to the classroom. It really does make a difference," Eyler said.
"Teaching kids PE skills or an enjoyment of physical activity is really important and I don't think that can be overlooked," she added.
Slater said there are ways for schools to get creative with physical activity and work it into the classroom schedule in brief spurts here and there, even if a full PE session isn't always possible. "All those minutes add up over the course of the day."
SOURCE: bit.ly/tDZkLz Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, online December 5, 2011.