Report | April 19, 2016

Physical Activity in California Schools

This report discusses three innovative ways to increase physical activity in California's schools, and explains why they matter for military readiness.

Why do military leaders care about kids’ physical activity?

In three decades, obesity has tripled among American children. Now, 30 percent of children in California and nationwide are overweight or obese.

In the same timeframe, physical activity dropped by one-third among Americans. Today, three-quarters of California children get less than an hour of physical activity daily.

In addition to taking a toll on kids’ health, the obesity epidemic is hurting our national security. Obesity disqualifies nearly one-third of young Americans from military service ― one of the main reasons why 71 percent of young Americans could not join the military if they wanted to.

Left unchecked, the obesity epidemic will not only threaten children’s futures and burden the U.S. healthcare system, but also put national security at stake.

3 ways to increase physical activity in California’s schools

Because children spend more than half of their waking hours at school, they should have the opportunity to be physically active there, in addition to the after-school hours.

Yet research shows that many California children are not active during or after the school day. For example, even though California requires physical education, one survey found that nearly 40 percent of students do not get any PE. And two-thirds of American students do not participate in sports after school.

Research supports three ways to get students active during the school day:

1. Physical activity in the classroom strengthens the body and brain

Schools can help kids achieve at least 10 minutes of daily physical activity by getting them active in the classroom. Rather than detract from academics, short bouts of physical activity actually improve children’s attention and performance.

There are two evidence-based approaches to getting kids active in the classroom:

2. A good recess increases physical activity

If structured properly, children can accumulate another 20 minutes of physical activity during recess.

There are best practices to get kids active during recess, according to Active Living Research:

  • Train recess supervisors: Investing in training for recess supervisors, such as on how to organize games, can help increase active time during recess.
  • Purchase low-cost equipment: Research shows that “providing students with equipment such as flying discs, plastic hoops, jump ropes, beanbags and balls” can increase the time kids spend being active during recess by 27 percent.
  • Use paint and markings to make games a part of the environment: Painted markings for games like hopscotch and mazes can increase the amount of recess time children spend on physical activity by 32 percent.

3. Making physical education fun boosts activity levels

High-quality PE programs that utilize a strong curriculum, good equipment, and fitness assessments can boost children’s daily physical activity by 30 minutes and improve their fitness and academic performance.

There are three best practices to get kids active during PE:

  • Use a high-quality curriculum: The best curricula focuses on making PE fun and inclusive, incorporating a variety of games, exercises and sports ― from dance, to strength training, to soccer. For example, the proportion of students who passed California’s FITNESSGRAM test tripled when five Los Angeles schools implemented UCLA’s Sound Body Sound Mind curriculum for PE.

  • Purchase good equipment: One school district saw a huge decline in student obesity rates following an investment in new exercise equipment and facilities.

  • Assess student fitness levels: California’s state FITNESSGRAM test assesses student fitness levels, which can help educators plan PE programs that are relevant to students’ needs and share best practices with other schools, and encourage students to set personal, realistic goals for improvement.


Increasing the quality and quantity of physical activity in schools is a critical step in addressing the childhood obesity crisis and helping children qualify for military service if they choose to serve. Together, California’s community leaders, educators and policymakers can help our children become fit for life.


  1. California