Fewer Colleges Mandate Physical Education Classes

By Catherine Groux
Posted January 08, 2013 11:00 AM

Fewer colleges have physical education class requirements.
Fewer colleges have physical education class requirements.
In the 1920s, a vast majority of four-year universities required students to take physical education classes before earning their bachelor's degrees. Times have changed, however, and today, only 39% of college students must pass physical education and exercise requirements, according to a new study by researchers at Oregon State University.

Brad Cardinal, lead author of the study, said these figures are discouraging, as physical education can offer a wide range of benefits to college students.

"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."

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than one-third of American adults are obese, putting them at risk for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. Many health experts, like Cardinal, feel this makes physical education for college students crucial.

However, studies show that exercise can offer more than just physical benefits. A July 2012 study by Dartmouth College found that in about 60% of the population, exercise can lead to the expression of a gene that is believed to improve learning, memory and mental acuity.

After reviewing a wide range of human and animal studies on the benefits of exercise, researcher Michelle W. Voss of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign came to similar conclusions. Voss and her colleagues found that both aerobic exercise and strength training play a crucial role in maintaining cognitive and brain health throughout life.

Diminishing Budgets

Despite the many benefits physical education can offer students, colleges across the country continue to cut their exercise requirements. While there is no research to prove it, Cardinal said he feels that smaller college budgets, as well as an increased focus on purely academic commitments, have led to fewer physical education requirements.

However, Cardinal said he hopes that research on the importance of exercise for college students will shine a light on this significant topic and show schools why it's so crucial for them to invest money in these courses.

"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."

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