School-related policies, and therefore most potential school-based change, are primarily controlled at the state and local levels.
While the Let’s Move campaign helped raise awareness of child inactivity & unhealthy nutrition nationwide in the 2010s, and the USDA did raise school meal standards throughout the country starting in 2012-13, child health has continued to worsen. These efforts were important, buy they were far from sufficient to reverse the overall trends.
We need to focus more on advocacy at lower levels of government & society—not primarily federal & national.
We have barely used many of the most historically effective policy strategies, which helped reduce smoking from 42% of adults in the 1960s to less than 12% today. Many of these policies can be implemented at state, county or even local levels, and do not require hard-to-achieve and often widely-resisted federal intervention:
Activity & Nutrition → Academic Achievement
School policies are supposed to be evidence-based. But when it comes to physical & health education and recess, schools are not honoring their own insistence on evidence—and states are not insisting that they do so.
In contrast with widespread school practices today, research in recent decades proves that:
School Recess Law
Recess is a long-neglected, no-cost way to increase student physical activity, as well as social & emotional development and mental health—while also improving student engagement & achievement.
It is absurd, yet a sad fact, that many & probably most elementary and middle school students now have only one brief recess in a 6-7 hour school day. And many of those same students only have PE for 30-45 minutes each week…if that. This is a huge drop from historic & recommended levels.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC consider recess a critical part of the school day—yet in many states & elementary schools, only a lunch recess remains, compared to 2-3 per day in the past.
We co-led Arizona’s adoption of a national breakthrough recess law in 2018, together with the parent-led Arizonans for Recess & School Wellness. We worked with Arizona Health & Physical Education, Arizona Public Health Association, Arizona Education Association and many others. Contrary to stereotypes about hyper-partisanship in state legislatures, this law (SB1083; ARS 15-118) passed with more than 90% of legislators supporting. As it is implemented, it is increasing physical activity by approximately 50% for 250,000 K-5 students in Arizona.
We are also advocating against counterproductive practices, such as withholding recess if students misbehave or do not complete their homework. And we are working on more monitoring & accountability to ensure compliance with the law.
Please visit our partner Arizonans for Recess & School Wellness for much more information on recess.
A-F School Accountability for Health
In recent decades, increasing school accountability for reading, writing and math, as measured by standardized test scores, has had major negative unintended consequences. Schools slashed physical & health education, arts ed, and recess, in order to increase seat-time for test prep.
This happened at the same time as screen- and seat-time were increasing at home and physical activity decreasing.
Thanks to our advocacy, the Arizona State Board of Education approved a resolution in April 2017 to add physical, health & arts education indicators to the state A-F school grading accountability formula, by which each public school is graded A, B, C, D or F.
School leaders across the state have confirmed that being able to increase their school’s state-awarded grade by restoring quality physical & health education, will create a significant incentive to invest the school time and resources needed to improve student health.
Healthy Future US has been working with the association of physical & health educators and others to develop the evaluation system needed to implement accountability in all schools statewide. In addition, we are launching Healthy Students Healthy State, because major new funding is needed to invest sustainably in quality health-related instruction, evaluation and support.
We are also advocating against counterproductive practices, such as withholding recess if students misbehave in the classroom, or do not complete their homework. And we are working on more monitoring & accountability to ensure compliance with the recess law.
60 Minutes Daily Physical Activity for Health
The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that children need at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily to be healthy. Yet schools are often providing only 15-20 minutes per day—followed by hours of “screen-time” sitting at home.
Unfortunately, while many middle-age and elderly Americans remember being very active in their neighborhoods after they got home from school—sadly, this is now much rarer.
Rather than expecting to try to make the home and neighborhood life of tens of millions of families much more active—realistically, the school setting is a much more practical setting to dramatically improve kids’ physical activity on a very large-scale throughout childhood. (Organically, over time, a renewed focus on more activity at school should also evolve into greater activity at home and in neighborhoods.)
“Schools are the only setting where all students can engage in physical activity during the day, making them a critical environment for providing and promoting physical activity.”
—Arizona Department of Education
Here is a proven example (based on Let’s Move Active Schools) of how we can get to 60 minutes of daily physical activity at school, even with less-than-ideal PE and recess time:
However, school leaders are very resistant to “unfunded mandates”—for example, requiring 60 minutes of daily physical activity at school, without funding more time at school to implement this.
We encountered substantial opposition by school leaders in trying to get the Arizona recess law passed, even though we were only requiring 2 recesses (or 1 recess + 1 PE class) daily K-5—well below traditional levels of three daily recesses for elementary school students.
So adequate sustainable funding is essential for more ambitious mandates.
See Healthy Students Healthy State for information on how we will get much more money into schools for health and prevention for all students.