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Obesity Myth #5: School Physical Activity Programs Can Help Reduce or Prevent Obesity

Obesity Myth #5 in the New England Journal of Medicine paper on myths, presumptions and facts about obesity, deals with the common assumption that reintroduction of physical-education classes may go a long way in preventing or reducing childhood obesity.

While physical education and increased physical activity (both in and outside school) may have all kinds of benefits for kids, reducing obesity rates may not be one of them.

Thus, the authors note,

“Physical education, as typically provided, has not been shown to reduce or prevent obesity.”

They base this position on the fact that,

“…in three studies that focused on expanded time in physical education indicated that even though there was an increase in the number of days children attended physical-education classes, the effects on body-mass index (BMI) were inconsistent across sexes and age groups.”


“Two meta-analyses showed that even specialized school-based programs that promoted physical activity were ineffective in reducing BMI or the incidence or prevalence of obesity.”

This finding may not be surprising. Regular readers will be well aware that physical activity is not the most effective strategy to lose or even control your weight – this certainly also applies to kids.

While there may well be a level of physical activity that would be effective in reducing or preventing obesity, such a level may not be achievable in conventional school settings (if it is, than this has yet to be demonstrated).

Interestingly enough, there is some data to even suggest that schools with strong varsity programs may in fact reduce physical activity levels in the average student at such schools.

None of this should dampen our enthusiasm to promote physical activity or physical education in schools – there are enough benefits of activity irrespective of whether or not such activity has any impact on body weight.

Rather, this myth should perhaps only serve as a reminder that bringing conventional phys-ed back into schools is unlikely to significantly reduce childhood obesity rates in the foreseeable future.

Edmonton, AB


  1. I wonder, though, what the long-term effects on health would be if resources were committed to encouraging joyful physical activity among kids? Even if it doesn’t change weight, being physically active has a host of health benefits. Again, what if we encourage healthy behaviors, rather than “healthy weight”?

    Spelman College in Atlanta has recently eliminated its inter-collegiate sports in favor of building more opportunities for physical activity across the entire campus. Funds that had supported volleyball, basketball, etc. are now going to rec centers on campus and other programs to encourage all students–not just athletes–to become more active.

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  2. I agree with Bobbini. I wasn’t surprised when my kids complained about gym in elementary school. I had hated it too (and I wasn’t overweight). I WAS surprised when they started liking gym in Jr and Sr high.

    #2 son transferred to an arts-focused school where ALL the kids had to learn dance and choreography. He got an A and he was so proud – so were we.

    My daughter learned to love physical activity in her public Waldorf high school where they taught yoga, tai chi, martial arts and tree climbing. She gained so much confidence that she joined the soccer team. They weren’t very good but who cares, she was doing it! When we asked her what had changed, she said “It’s okay to try here. No one is going to make fun of you.”

    The best thing we can do to encourage physical activity, is to help kids find the activity they enjoy. End the focus on team sports and give kids options.

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  3. A physical education program based solely on physical activity appears to be ineffective at reducing childhood obesity, but has there been any study of a combined physical activity / health program? My recollection of health courses in school were that they intoroduced the topic of healthy eating, but really did nothing beyond an introduction. If obesity truly is a social problem, then a sustained education program may be useful in addressing it.

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  4. Depending how it is done, I would say it can also discourage exercise. I was an active kid outside of school, but gym class was pure torture and humiliation, for 12 years straight. Being singled out to run laps because I needed it more, while other kids were encouraged to yell taunts, etc. Everyone else being told my weight, and have to stand in front of them all while the teacher explained how much they should try not to be like me. Being picked last for every team, and if there were uneven teams, I would have none and be forced to run laps. In my younger years, I played team sports, but about 5th grade it was made clear to me I wasn’t welcome, not because I played badly, but I wasn’t “fit” enough. I specifically chose a college that wouldn’t require any more gym class, and avoided sports or exercise of any kind. Now in my 30s, I am again very active in bike riding, team sports, and belong to a gym. But I spent a lot of years avoiding physical activity because of the abuse I suffered. I worry that the current focus on fat kids will just make gym class even more miserable for them.

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  5. If obesity was strictly a disease of high weight, as measured by BMI, then this would be a pretty strong argument. However, if one were to define obesity more rigorously – a disease of lifestyle, body composition, and fat distribution – then one can see how physical education in the school can be a part of the solution.

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  6. This to me simply confirms that people are wrong to call overweight people “lazy”. Given similar amounts of exercise and effort some kids are thin and some are overweight. Seems to be very clear that diet is far more important than exercise in terms of numbers on the scale. My personal belief though is that appetite and personal taste as well as environment are the key factors in what and how much people choose to eat, not will power nor any other “noble” trait.

    Exercise has never had a significant impact on my weight. In fact, during some periods of intense exercise both cardio and weight bearing, my weight has actually increased slightly, perhaps due to gains in muscle tissue.

    What exercise has done for me though is kept my blood pressure and other health indicators in a healthy range. If I am not exercising, my health & well being does indeed suffer, regardless of what weight I happen to be. Exercise also impacts what my actual shape is, it tightens, tones and presents a more pleasing figure, even when the number on the scale remains the same.

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  7. Phys ed makes many kids hate exercise, and they will avoid being active outside of phys ed as a result. It happened to both me and my brother – I personally feel my brother’s obesity was *caused* by phys ed, because he used to be an active boy until he had some bad experiences in phys ed, and his weight ballooned right afterwards. If we really want kids to be active, we should either scrap phys ed altogether or reform it extensively.
    I’d like to see phys ed replaced with martial arts training. In karate, they actually taught us how to do the activities instead of assuming we already knew how to do it (in all my years of phys ed, I never learnt how to throw a ball accurately or bounce a basketball, despite being asked to do those many times). And everyone moved at their own pace – you could stay a white belt for several years or get your yellow belt in six months, and no one made a big deal either way.

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