RAND Study Finds Modest Increase in Physical Education Can Help Cut Number of Overweight Young Girls

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August 27, 2004

Increasing physical education instruction in kindergarten and first grade by as little as one hour per week could reduce the number of overweight 5- and 6-year-old girls nationally by as much as 10 percent, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Based upon their findings, RAND Health researchers estimate that providing every kindergarten and first grade student with five hours per week of physical education instruction — close to the level recommended — could cut the number of overweight girls in those grades by 43 percent, and the number of girls in those grades at risk for being overweight by 60 percent.

The study is the first national evaluation of the role existing physical education instruction plays in reducing weight problems among American school children. The results appear in the September edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

Funding for the RAND study was provided by the non-profit National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation. “This study shows that we have the power to affect positive change on an enormous level,” said Nancy Chockley, president of the NIHCM Foundation. “It proves that by systematically incorporating daily physical activity into young children’s lives, we can successfully prevent childhood obesity for large populations of kids. Increasing PE time is one of the few solutions in the struggle against overweight that is effective, practical, and can be replicated.”

The study found that increasing physical education instruction had no significant effect on boys in kindergarten and first grade. Researchers say this may be due to the fact that boys generally are more physically active than girls early in life. Other studies that have examined the impact of individual physical education programs on students’ weight have found that most of the improvement is observed among girls.

“Expanding existing physical education instruction could play a significant role in curbing the number of overweight girls,” said Ashlesha Datar, a RAND researcher and lead author of the study. “While physical education often gets cut when education budgets are tight, it has a potentially important role in the battle against obesity.”

Datar and colleague Roland Sturm analyzed information about 9,751 school children from across the nation who were followed for two years beginning in kindergarten. The information about the children came from a survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, which is collecting detailed information about a large group of children from about 1,000 schools nationally who entered kindergarten during the 1998-99 school year. The children will be followed through the fifth grade.

RAND researchers wanted to know whether lengthening existing physical education programs would help curb obesity and other weight problems among American children.

The RAND study found that just 16 percent of the kindergartners received daily physical education instruction, while 13 percent received physical education instruction less than once a week or never at all. Physical education instruction increased during first grade for about one-third of the children, with the median level of instruction rising from about 35 minutes per week in kindergarten to 68 minutes per week in first grade.

RAND Health is the nation’s largest independent health policy research organization, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on medical quality, health care costs and delivery of health care, among other topics.

The NIHCM Foundation is a Washington D.C.-based non-profit group whose mission is to promote improvement in health care access, management and quality. More information is available at www.nihcm.org “Obesity in Young Children: Impact and Intervention,” which summarizes three RAND studies on obesity and school performance, and highlights key initiatives in this area.


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