Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stuck in the Sixties

By Dr. Thom McKenzie

Forty-three years ago this week (1966) I received my first degree, a Bachelors of Physical Education. I had mastered a very excellent program, and I had wonderful teachers. They ensured that I was physically fit, physically skilled, current academically on exercise physiology, kinesiology, and other subjects, and that I had practice and feedback on managing and instructing students. I was ready for my first job as a high school teacher and coach, and I did well at it.

My teacher preparation program taught me nothing at all about promoting physical activity or changing human behavior (Skinner was still being entertained by rodents in his laboratory). But that was OK because it was the sixties and sedentary living was not yet a problem. There were no global obesity and diabetes crises and the term diabesity had not yet been coined. I was not at all concerned with getting my students active outside the gym, because they did this automatically. Most walked to school, many did physical labor at home, and the only screen time to worry about was during fly season in the summer.

In my current job as a researcher I spend more time observing what happens in gyms than directing what goes on there. Teachers are still doing pretty much what I did over 40 years ago, although they now face much larger classes and more disruptive students. I find most are pretty well prepared. Unfortunately their preparation has been aimed primarily at facing the challenges that I encountered long ago, not the challenges of today.

In a scientific study using direct observation we found that PE teachers in six states spent only about 20 seconds of each class prompting or encouraging their middle school students to be active outside of class (McKenzie et al., 2006). In addition at AAHPERD this spring, I conducted a very unscientific poll of physical educators and teacher educators. Of the over 40 higher education institutions represented, only two offered current physical education majors courses in behavior analysis/behavior modification and none provided coursework in social marketing.

Even when offered daily, PE provides only a small proportion of the 60 minutes per day recommended by health authorities. According to NASPE Standard 3, a physically educated person “participates regularly in physical activity.” PE teachers cannot help students meet this objective unless they have been prepared to promote physical activity beyond their gym walls. It is time for PETE (Physical Education Teacher Education) programs to become unstuck from the sixties. In the interim, it is up to district staff development programs to help teachers acquire the new skills that are needed to assist students to avoid a lifetime of sedentary living.


McKenzie, T. L. (2007). The preparation of physical educators: A public health perspective. Quest, 59, 346-357.

McKenzie, T. L., Catellier, D. J., Conway, T., Lytle, L. A., Grieser, M., Webber, L. A., Pratt, C. A, & Elder, J. P. (2006). Girls’ activity levels and lesson contexts during middle school PE: TAAG baseline. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(7), 1229-1235.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Where does PE fit within our schools? (Part Two)

Can PE contribute optimally to both educational and health goals?  There is a clear illustration that public health’s priorities for PE are not shared in the PE field.  The public health concern is that PE is the only required time for physical activity that affects almost all students on a regular basis. Remember that almost all of the school day is enforced sitting.  It is essential to ensure that opportunity for activity and health promotion is not missed. The Healthy People health promotion objectives for the US adopted a goal that at least 50% of PE class time would be spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA).  Everyone is aware that “PE is more than just physical activity,” but the objective does not require that PE would be reduced to exercise programs where students run all the time.  Active learning, less-active skill drills, game play, and some didactics would seem to fit comfortably in classes that are at least 50% active.  But studies show 50% MVPA requires planning, and often training and an appropriate curriculum.  Major studies funded by NIH, such as SPARK, CATCH, LEAP, and TAAG showed that activity levels can be raised in elementary, middle, and high schools, so the 50% MVPA is realistic and evidence-based. 

The 50% MVPA objective was announced in 1990, repeated in 2000, and is likely to remain in the 2010 editions of Healthy People.  CDC’s Community Guide recommends “enhanced” or highly active PE as an evidence-based intervention to promote physical activity.  The public health community is strong in its support for PE.  However, to my knowledge, no state education department, no PE professional organization, and no school district has adopted the 50% MVPA objective as a requirement or official goal.

This situation demonstrates the need for ongoing dialog between education and health departments at the national, state, and local levels, to work together to achieve multiple aims through excellent PE.  Because improved PE would benefit health, perhaps part of PE’s funding should come from the health sector.  There are several examples of this approach being effective, so it is a model that could be expanded.

James Sallis

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Where does PE fit within our schools? (Part One)

Physical education is at the intersection of at least three major academic thoroughfares.  PE has roots in exercise and sports science and represents a primary means of applying the science. PE is itself a pedagogical field and is practiced within educational systems.  The public health field claims PE as a health intervention that is of increasing value due to the childhood obesity epidemic.  Major intersections are often centers of culture and commerce, but the turf surrounding PE is often contested. 

These are my personal observations of how the various fields view PE, though they are necessarily over-generalized.  Over the decades PE programs in universities have split from exercise science departments because they could not reconcile the science and application missions.  This may not be too unfortunate, because neither the scientists nor the PE practitioners tried too hard to bridge the gap between science and practice.  Because all states have some kind of school physical education requirements, education departments in universities and state governments have no choice but to accommodate PE.  However, there is a notable lack of enthusiasm for PE on the part of the education establishment.  The federal Department of Education provides little leadership or support for PE.  Many state education departments refuse to hire a physical education coordinator.  After 100 years in the schools, PE is not considered a core subject and education departments remain unsure what to do with PE.  The percentage of students taking PE has declined in recent years.

In my view, of the three disciplines, public health has the highest level of interest in PE, because it is part of coordinated school health and physical activity has many physical and mental health benefits.  The obesity epidemic has only heightened interest in PE, because obesity is seen as a crisis needing urgent attention.  But public health’s interests in PE are often not reciprocated.  PE professionals seem much more interested in gaining status as a core academic discipline than in ensuring PE is optimized to benefit children’s health.  Is it possible for PE to improve its status within education while improving children’s health?  I will touch on this in my next entry.

James Sallis