A new study has shown that school-based physical education plays a key role in curbing obesity and improving fitness among adolescents from low-income communities.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and UC Berkeley have found that regular participation in PE class is significantly associated with greater cardiovascular fitness and lower body mass index.

“We took an incredibly comprehensive look at all of the opportunities kids have throughout their day to engage in physical activity and determined which are the most strongly linked to fitness and weight status,” said first author Dr Kristine Madsen, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of paediatrics at UCSF Children’s Hospital. “Obesity continues to be a major public health concern, particularly in low-income communities, so it is imperative that we develop targeted interventions to improve the health of at-risk youth,” Madsen added.

“This research will help support moving physical education policy forward. Clearly, physical education in schools is an underutilized tool in our efforts to reduce paediatric obesity,” said Patricia Crawford, DrPH, RD, the study’s senior author and director of the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Centre for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley. The researchers found that engaging in at least 20 minutes of exercise during PE class was significantly associated with both shorter mile times and lower body mass index scores. Furthermore, as the students’ reported levels of enjoyment of PE increased, their mile times decreased.

“PE was by far the most significant predictor of students’ fitness and was the only variable associated with improved weight status,” Madsen said. “I think this shows that we need to increase the importance of physical education in schools and set up tougher standards in the same way we set up tough standards around academic performance,” the expert added.

The data also showed a significant association between walking to school and shorter mile times; however, walking to school also was significantly associated with higher body mass index. The study appears in the journal Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

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