Fewer colleges and universities than ever have a physical education requirement, according to an Oregon State University study.
In 1920, 97 percent of college students were required to take physical education, the study found. Today, only 39 percent are.
To Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise and sport science who conducted the study, this is both ironic and alarming, because young people need exercise more now than ever, and much more is known now about the mental as well as the physical benefits of exercise.
"We see more and more evidence about the benefit of physical activity, yet educational institutions are not embracing their own research," he said. "It is alarming to see four-year institutions following the path that K-12 schools have already gone down, eliminating exercise as part of the curriculum even as obesity rates climb."
In K-12 schools in the United States, the median budget for phys ed is just $764, the study found. That alarms Carnegie Mellon University athletic director Susan Bassett.
"There should be a requirement in elementary schools for physical education every single day," she said. "If a girl hasn't participated (in athletic activity) by the age of 7, chances are she will have a lifetime of inactivity."
Schools should provide at least 150 minutes of physical education each week for children in elementary school and at least 225 minutes of phys ed each week for middle and high school students, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. But only 30 percent of high school students and less than 20 percent of elementary students get the number of minutes the association recommends.
Elementary schools that provide more PE classes tend to cut recess time, according to a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Illinois.
Two-thirds of high school students are not getting enough exercise, the "Shape of the Nation" study found. But only a third of high school students have a gym class daily. Nearly half the high school students surveyed last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they had no physical education classes in a typical week. Only six states require physical education in every grade.
A third of adolescents and teens are overweight. Half that number are obese. Child obesity rates have doubled since 1980.
"Most kids under age 18 spend the majority of their day sitting in classrooms and a big part of their free time outside of school watching television, playing sedentary video games or surfing the Internet," the national phys ed association reported. "A required physical education period assures that, at a minimum, they'll get at least a portion of the recommended physical activity in a day."
But John Jakicic, chair of the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks physical education should be required for college students, too.
"College students are becoming more and more sedentary," he said. "They're becoming more overweight."
Phys ed requirements "go well beyond health parameters," Jakicic said. "A more active person also functions better academically as well."
Colleges across the country cut back on physical education requirements as part of a general relaxation of academic requirements that began in the 1980s. In K-12 schools, the pressure has been financial. As budgets tightened, physical education and music programs were the first to feel the pinch.
This, Oregon State's Cardinal said, is penny wise and pound foolish. Medical expenses related to obesity are expected to cost $344 billion by 2018, he said.