How Can Schools Help Youth Increase Physical Activity?

An Economic Analysis Comparing School-Based Programs

Published in: Preventive Medicine, v. 69, Supplement, Dec. 2014, p. S55-S60

Posted on RAND.org on December 19, 2014

by Susan H. Babey, Shin-Yi Wu, Deborah Cohen

Read More

Access further information on this document at Preventive Medicine

This article was published outside of RAND. The full text of the article can be found at the link above.

Research Question

  1. How effective and cost effective are these common types of programs designed to promote physical activity for youth: after-school programs, before-school programs, PE classes, extended-day PE, and short physical activity breaks during the school day?

OBJECTIVE: For optimal health, physical activity should be an integral and routine part of daily life. Youth spend a significant amount of time at school yet rarely achieve the recommended 60 min of moderate and vigorous physical activity in physical education (PE) classes or recess. This study assessed the following types of school-based opportunities to improve physical activity for youth: after-school programs, before-school programs, PE classes, extended-day PE, and short physical activity breaks during the school day. METHOD: An economic analysis conducted in 2013 compared school-based approaches to increasing physical activity. Analysis factors included costs, reach, effects on physical activity gains, cost-effectiveness, and other potentially augmenting benefits. RESULTS: Two programs were significantly superior in terms of reach and cost per student: (1) extending the school day with mandatory PE participation and (2) offering short (10-minute) physical activity breaks during regular classroom hours. After-school program costs per student are high and the programs have a smaller reach, but they offer benefits (such as childcare) that may justify their higher costs. Before-school programs did not appear feasible. CONCLUSION: Incorporating short physical activity breaks into the existing school day would be a cost-effective way to increase school-based activity. This type of program is inexpensive and has broad reach. Inserting activity breaks throughout the day is appropriate, especially when youth are otherwise largely sedentary.

Key Findings

  • After-school programs are expensive; short breaks are inexpensive and cost effective.
  • Two programs are significantly superior in terms of reach and cost per student: Extending the school day with mandatory PE, and short (10 minute) physical activity breaks during regular classroom hours.

Research conducted by

This report is part of the RAND Corporation external publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.