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Physical Activity in Schools

December 9, 2021
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Jill Barnas

Executive Summary

Schools have long been identified as having an important and often frontline role in identifying public health needs in students, and they have implemented several successful initiatives such as entrance vaccinations, dental examinations, vision and hearing screenings, and mental health services. Due to increasing youth obesity rates, schools have been called upon to promote physical activity. Missouri law (RSMo 167.720) requires at least one physical education course per week for all K-12 students and at least one 20-minute recess per day for elementary students. Statewide policies to improve exercise and health in schools may be a promising approach to address the primary risk factors of obesity.


  • In Missouri, approximately 32% of children are considered to be overweight or obese and 74.9% of children do not meet current physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day.


  • Youth who are active in childhood are likely to remain active into adulthood, while those who are inactive are likely to  remain sedentary throughout the lifespan.
  • Recess and physical education requirements in schools account for approximately only 31-36% of daily physical activity recommendations.
  • School-based obesity prevention initiatives that educate and incorporate healthy, long-term activity behaviors in childhood might have the greatest chance to reduce obesity rates.


  • The prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity is generated from self-report data and school health screenings which can have inherent variability. Individuals may inaccurately report weight and physical activity metrics.
    • Body mass index is associated with numerous chronic lifestyle diseases but it is  not the definitive, gold standard for assessing obesity and health.
  • The effects of nationwide closures of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic on physical activity and obesity in children are currently being investigated.
  • Schools in communities of low socioeconomic status may not have available resources to promote physical activity.
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