Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
It wasn´t long ago that I strolled into a very daunting room filled with machines and contraptions that confounded and intimidated me. This sense of being lost at sea was only added to by the ease and skill with which I saw others navigating the room. As it turns out, according to a new study out of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, my experience was far from unique.
At my university, our workout facility was a massively large one-story complex that was outfitted with all of the most modern exercise equipment. This had to do, as it turns out, with the fact that our school was lucky enough, for a few short years, to be the spring training camp home of the Dallas Cowboys.
My trepidation led me to take a weight lifting course with the hopes of familiarizing myself with each piece of equipment in the room. But in the same class catalog, I saw that other physical education courses I could have elected to take included classes on walking and bowling. While we at least had a physical education requirement for graduation, not all of the options were truly challenging.
This latest study seems even more shocking to me than being able to satisfy a physical education credit with bowling. In it, Brad Cardinal, lead author of the study and professor of exercise and sport science at Oregon State, claims that more than half of four-year colleges and universities in the United States have dropped their physical education requirements when compared to historic levels.
The peak of physical education requirement at four-year universities occurred in the 1920´s when almost every college student found that physical education and exercise stood between them and their degree. Today, however, this number has dropped to an all-time low. According to the study, just 39 percent of US college students are required to obtain a physical education credit prior to graduation.
Cardinal finds this almost unconscionable as a weight and obesity epidemic has stricken our nation and policy makers and health experts are typically in full agreement that the overall amount of exercise for individuals must be increased.
To arrive at his findings, Cardinal pulled data from 354 four-year universities that had been randomly selected for his study. He examined data that went back to the previously discussed peak in exercise education in 1920, a year that saw 97 percent of students who were required to engage in physical education.
Today we see a staggering 34 percent of adolescents and teens between the ages of 12 and 19 who are overweight, with 17 percent falling into the obese range. Since 1980, these rates have roughly doubled, according to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report.
“We see more and more evidence about the benefit of physical activity, not just to our bodies, but to our minds, yet educational institutions are not embracing their own research,” Cardinal 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.”
Cardinal, a national expert on the benefits of physical activity points to research that shows not only is your basic health improved by exercise, but it also helps to improve your overall cognitive performance.
“Brain scans have shown that physical activity improves the area of the brain involved with high-level decision making,” he said. “In addition, we know employers often are concerned about employee health, in part because physically active employees attend work more and tend to perform better.”
Oregon State University has not buckled to the disturbing trend among other four-year universities. Each student is still required to take physical education courses. Cardinal believes that this basic requirement can help set the tone for students in their general understanding that an active lifestyle and good health should be as important as their classroom studies. According to Cardinal, requiring even just one or two physical education courses can help to jump-start a student into incorporating a healthier lifestyle into their college experience. This, he believes, will translate into a life-long commitment to health.
“There is a remarkable disconnect in that we fund research as a nation showing that physical activity is absolutely critical to academic and life success, but we aren’t applying that knowledge to our own students,” he said.
With this study, we see the “what;” but what we haven´t seen is the “why.”
Cardinal has a theory on that, as well. According to him, it is likely this downturn in physical education requirement is stemming from the combination of shrinking budgets and an increase in focus on purely academic courses. He believes it is mirroring the same trend that has been seen in the public elementary, middle and high schools in our nation.
Cardinal believes that education and public policy administrators are looking at the math equation the wrong way, however. The median physical education budget for schools in the US is a meager $764 per school year in K-12. In fact, 61 percent of physical education teachers report an annual budget of less than $1000.
But when you look at what obesity will cost the nation overall–an unbelievable $344 billion in medical related expenses over the next 5 years–Cardinal believes the cut to physical education barely saves in the short term, setting us up for an astronomical hospital bill, equal to 21 percent of US healthcare spending, in the very near term.
Many of the schools studied, while not requiring a physical education credit to receive your diploma, do offer recreation classes and state-of-the-art fitness centers.
As I pointed out above, as a freshman, that fitness center was rather intimidating.
And Cardinal points out that not only freshman feel that nervousness at even entering the room. International and low-fitness or skill-level students are equally intimidated. Previous studies have shown that campus exercise facilities are most often used by the already healthy population of the student body.
“The very people who want to work out, and likely would find a way to do so no matter what, are often the most frequent visitors to gyms and fitness centers,” Cardinal said. “A public university should provide a way for people who may be intimidated by state-of-the-art facilities, or may be unfamiliar with even the basic concept of working out, a way to learn about basic health and physical activity.”
As I mentioned, thankfully my university did require physical education coursework for graduation.
For the schools that don´t maintain this requirement, Cardinal has a suggestion. He feels that researchers and other experts in exercise and sport science may have to put in the legwork themselves to help turn the tide of inactivity at the university level. It will take a concerted effort to drive the research into the area of policy formation.
“As health educators and exercise scientists, we need to get serious about our roles in advocating for and using research to bring physical education back to college campuses,” Cardinal said. “College isn’t too late to start influencing students and getting them on a healthy trajectory.”
Spencer Sorensen of Portland State University and Marita Cardinal of Western Oregon University contributed to this study. The results are in the current issue of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.