Fewer colleges and universities than ever have a physical education requirement, according to a study conducted principally by Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise and sport science at Oregon State University.
In 1920, 97 percent of college students were required to take physical education, the study found. Today, only 39 percent are. This is both ironic and alarming, Mr. Cardinal said, because young people need exercise more now than ever, and much more is known now about the mental as well as the physical benefits of exercise.
"We see more and more evidence about the benefit of physical activity, yet educational institutions are not embracing their own research," he 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."
In K-12 schools in the United States, the median budget for phys ed is just $764, the Oregon State University study found. That alarms Carnegie Mellon University athletic director Susan Bassett.
"There should be a requirement in elementary schools for physical education every single day," she said. "If a girl hasn't participated [in athletic activity] by the age of 7, chances are she will have a lifetime of inactivity."
Schools should provide at least 150 minutes of physical education each week for children in elementary school and at least 225 minutes of phys ed each week for middle and high school students, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. But only 30 percent of high school students and less than 20 percent of elementary students get the number of minutes the association recommends.
Elementary schools that provide more PE classes tend to cut recess time, according to a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Illinois.
Two-thirds of high school students are not getting enough exercise, the "Shape of the Nation" study found. But only a third of high school students have a gym class daily. Nearly half the high school students surveyed last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they had no physical education classes in a typical week. Only six states require physical education in every grade.
"With the obesity rates going up, it's not a good thing to be cutting back on phys ed requirements," said Sam Akhavan, a sports medicine physician at Allegheny General Hospital.
A third of adolescents and teens are overweight. Half that number are obese. Child obesity rates have doubled since 1980.
"Most kids under age 18 spend the majority of their day sitting in classrooms and a big part of their free time outside of school watching television, playing sedentary video games or surfing the Internet," the national phys ed association reported. "A required physical education period assures that, at a minimum, they'll get at least a portion of the recommended physical activity in a day."
Local school districts contacted by the Post-Gazette require more physical education than the national average but less than the national group recommends.
Forty-three states set physical education standards for elementary students, 44 (two fewer than in 2010) set standards for high school students, the association found. But in most of those states, local districts aren't required to meet them.
Pennsylvania mandates physical education every year for students in grades K-6. For middle school students, planned instruction is mandated but not every year. Pennsylvania is "definitely above average," a spokeswoman for the national association said.
Dr. Akhavan sees no need to require phys ed in college.
"College kids are fairly active," he said. "We need to focus on the younger kids."
Most of the experts contacted by the Post-Gazette agree -- provided colleges offer students plenty of opportunities for physical activity. Area schools do.
CMU's predecessor, Carnegie Tech, had a two-year phys ed requirement into the 1950s, but it was phased out in the 1960s. It isn't necessary -- and probably wouldn't be useful -- for Carnegie Mellon to have one today, Ms. Bassett said.
About 80 percent of CMU students take part in physical activities through fitness classes, sports and intramural sports, she said.
"Our ambition is to motivate, educate and engage our whole campus community in physical activity at whatever level of interest and ability they have," Ms. Bassett said.
"The real work has to be done [in K-12 schools], so exercise is a normal part of every person's day," she said. "It's harder to change attitudes when they are 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds."
But John Jakicic, chair of the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks physical education should be required for college students, too.
"College students are becoming more and more sedentary," he said. "They're becoming more overweight."
Phys ed requirements "go well beyond health parameters," Mr. Jakicic said. "A more active person also functions better academically as well."
Pitt doesn't have a physical education requirement.
When Pennsylvania set up its state college system, each of the 14 schools was assigned an area of emphasis. For Slippery Rock College (now Slippery Rock University), it was physical education. Students there used to have a phys ed requirement, but it was abandoned in 2003. However, the 82,000-square-foot Robert N. Aebersold Student Recreation Center provides students and faculty who want to work out with one of the finest athletic facilities in the country.
Because it originated as a commuter school with many of its students attending part time at night, Robert Morris University has never had a phys ed requirement. But as the Moon campus has grown, so have opportunities for student recreation. RMU's Island Sports Center on Neville Island, which is open to the public, "is a state-of-the-art facility," said Armand Buzzelli, campus recreation director.
"We have about 12 fitness classes students can take for free, and more than 1,000 participate in our intramural sports leagues," Mr. Buzzelli said.
The problem is that, typically, it is the healthiest, most physically active portion of the student body who use these facilities, "whereas the [overweight and sedentary] students who can benefit the most may be intimidated by these facilities," Mr. Jakicic said.
"A broader physical activity requirement for all students may provide students the proper instruction in how to exercise safely and effectively," he said.
Colleges across the country cut back on physical education requirements as part of a general relaxation of academic requirements that began in the 1980s. In K-12 schools, the pressure has been financial. As budgets tightened, physical education and music programs were the first to feel the pinch.
This, Oregon State's Mr. Cardinal said, is penny wise and pound foolish. Medical expenses related to obesity are expected to cost $344 billion by 2018, he said.
Jack Kelly: email@example.com or 412-263-1476. First Published February 25, 2013 5:00 AM