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Reforming Interscholastic Sports and Physical Education Programs


As John Gerdy argues in his book, Sports in School, "our sports programs are elitist and exclusionary, neither designed nor conducted with the health benefits of participants in mind." Gerdy contends that "If we were interested in deriving the greatest health return on dollars spent on athletics, more resources would be spent on broad-based, participatory intramural, club and physical education programs than on the current programs designed to cater to a small population of elite athletes."

The Women Sports Foundation's 2008 survey, Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America, documents a variety of ways that reduced economic resources in communities and families negatively erode children’s chances to develop personal and social well-being through sport, including the steady growth of what it calls  “pay to play” sports programs which, in many schools and communities, "threatens to further reduce participation among children from poorer families—the very children for whom athletic participation rates are already lower than their more economically privileged peers."

Fundamentally altering the outmoded model that most schools follow for interscholastic sports will be a monumental undertaking.  It will require the effort of a large and vocal group of committed parents.  But it can be done.

First, try to eliminate cutting at levels below high school varsity.

Second, accommodate the interests of those students not playing competitive team sports but who want to continue to engage in some form of physical exercise or sports in a non-competitive setting, by reforming and expanding school-based physical education programs and by developing and funding after-school programs offering aerobics, dance, exercise walking, self-defense, yoga, pilates, strength training, flag/touch football, and Ultimate Frisbee.

The Women Sports Foundation's 2008 survey, Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America, supports this recommendation.  It reports that many of the nation's schools "have cut back on physical education offerings or stopped requiring 'gym classes' entirely. One in five U.S. schools does not offer physical education (PE) at all, and despite Centers for Disease Control recommendations, only handfuls of elementary, middle and high schools offer daily PE classes (i.e., 4%, 8% and 2%, respectively)." 

The Women Sports Foundation report contains a number of important recommendations:

  • Nationally and regionally-scaled steps should be taken to counteract the downturn in physical education attendance among high school girls. [Update: A 2012 study1 by researchers at Dartmouth, however, does not support a relationship between high school PE and adolescent weight status, which is consistent with previous studies].
  • Local, state, and federal health planners need to further invest in physical education and youth sports as key elements of preventive health policy. Guidelines and practices should be developed to close the gap in physical education between girls and boys, girls of color and Caucasians, and schools in poor communities and more affluent communities. [Update: while PE has been shown to be protective against overweight/obesity for younger children, the 2012 Dartmouth study, consistent with others, did not support a relationship between PE at the high school level and weight status, perhaps because, the authors speculated, they may not involve a substantial enough duration or intensity level of physical activity to affect overall energy balance in high school students].
  • School boards can reverse the cuts in PE offerings, make PE mandatory, and broaden the curriculum to appeal to the wide range of girls' interests in exercise and physical activities. Increasing opportunities for exercise in PE classes are also likely to be a highly effective mechanism for infusing exercise into the lives of children who do not like sports. [Again, this recommendation may apply more for PE at the elementary and middle school level; on the sports side, the Dartmouth study clearly showed a positive relationship between sports participation on 3 or more teams at the high school level and reduced rates of overweight/obesity].
  • School officials can seek grants to initiate, expand, and improve their physical education programs for K-12 students through the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP). For information on how to apply, click here.  
  • Schools and communities can seek information and resources in order to enhance their existing health and physical education programs.

Third, ask schools to consider returning to same-sex PE. Co-ed physical education, while it has obvious advantages, also has some significant downsides for both boys and girls. A study of South Carolina middle and high school girls reported in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that girls taking girls-only PE exercised substantially more than girls in co-ed programs. As for boys, those who support the current shift in the physical education curriculum away from traditional competitive sports, often involving an aggressive component, towards aerobic activities such as riding a stationary bicycle or jogging, argues Dr. Leonard Sax, are ignoring the fact "that many boys need the aggressive element found in sports such as basketball and soccer" and that the result "is that boys who aren't athletic enough to make the team now have no socially acceptable outlet for their aggressive impulses."

Fourth, instead of cutting school sports programs, find ways to increase the opportuntities for all adolescents, regardless of athletic ability, to participate in sports at the high school level, which was shown by the 2012 report1 by researchers at Dartmouth to be the most effective way of reducing obesity rates among high school students.

1.  Drake KM, Beach ML, Longacre MR, et. al.  Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status.  Pediatrics 2012; 130(2):1-9 (doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-2898).

Updated July 15, 2012 to include references to the Dartmouth study.


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