Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health

My, how things have changed in 40 years! The National Physical Activity Plan Education Sector

by James R. Morrow, Jr.

Paul Roetert

June 1, 2016 – I didn’t go to work today – for the first time in my adult life I don’t have a job. I retired yesterday after 40 years as a university professor. It is interesting how things all come together. I have been in school every semester (except one when in the United States Air Force basic training) since 1952. That is 64 years of schooling. I began school about the time a report on American youth physical fitness levels “shocked” President Eisenhower. I distinctly recall taking the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Youth Fitness Test as a student. Little did I know that I would spend much of my life working in related areas. I learned about “tests and measurements” as an undergraduate. My graduate work resulted in a PhD in Research and Evaluation Methodology. I have spent my career studying measurement and evaluation in kinesiology, physical activity (PA), physical education (PE), and human performance with specific interest in youth fitness testing and the relation between physical activity and health, particularly in youth.

During my early professional career (mid 1970s) there was great interest in, and controversy around, the development of youth fitness tests. Multiple organizations and states created their own youth fitness batteries, often with similar test items but with different norms, standards, and award systems. White papers, symposia, dedicated review committees, and meetings were held across the U.S. throughout the 1970s and 1980s with the intent of developing the “best” physical fitness test for youth. Professionals argued their positions vehemently, occasionally resulting in difficult friendships. The focus was on “Which test should you use?” and “How could you use that test when this one is more appropriate?” Interest focused on the attributes of physical fitness: aerobic fitness, musculoskeletal fitness, and eventually body composition. Evaluation procedures, and norm- versus criterion-referenced standards, were often argued.

More recent discussions have focused on the behavior of physical activity and not the attributes of physical fitness. The current discussions led directly to the creation and implementation of the National Physical Activity Plan (NPAP) and specifically to the Education Sector of the NPAP. While testing, evaluation, and reporting are clearly important, the current focus on delivery of quality physical activity programs throughout educational settings is of penultimate importance. Theoretically, those who engage in sufficient physical activity will accrue the associated health benefits. Given that approximately one-quarter of the U.S. population are in educational settings ranging from pre-school through post-secondary experiences (childcare settings, schools, institutions of higher education), delivery of effective education-based physical activity programs can impact individuals throughout their lives and have a major impact on the health of the nation. There is not another singular institutional environment that can have greater impact on society and physical activity behaviors than educational settings.

Release of the 2016 update of the NPAP has implications across all sectors of society, but none more so than the Education Sector. Delivery of effective physical activity programs anchored in physical education settings is essential.  Given the breadth and reach of educational settings, it is important to develop delivery systems for quality programming that influence lifelong learning and decision-making. Parents, teachers, administrators, students, and policy makers must work together to influence delivery of quality physical activity experiences, including the teaching of a variety of skills, thus increasing the number of activities in which students will be able to engage throughout life. Initiatives such as Comprehensive School Physical Activity Programs (CSPAP), the Institute of Medicine’s “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School,” and the recently adopted “Every Student Succeeds Act,” wherein physical education is explicitly identified as part of a “well-rounded education,” speak to the importance of providing quality physical activity experiences. Education starts in pre-school (or earlier) programs and continues through post-secondary experiences (and throughout life). It is essential that delivery of programs be coordinated across educational settings so that new, relevant, important, and meaningful information and experiences can be provided. School-based program development and delivery via such organizations as SHAPE America can significantly impact these actions. An important component in assessing progress in the education sector is the United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth that provides a comprehensive evaluation of advancement on physical activity indicators in school-based children and youth. Similar to parents following a child’s progress, physical activity specialists should continue to track progress in meeting physical activity goals.

The changes I have observed and participated in over the past 40 years (i.e., the release of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans; the NPAP; and surveillance systems to quantify and validate the effectiveness of physical activity programs) have their roots in the “tests and measurements” I experienced and learned as a young professional. The transition from physical fitness testing to impacting physical activity behavior is evident in the Presidential Youth Fitness Program (PYFP), a comprehensive, collaborative school-based program promoting physical activity. Collaborators include the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, The Cooper Institute, SHAPE America, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Forty years ago the focus of national initiatives was to conduct fitness testing on youth. Today the focus is on getting children and youth to be physically active for a lifetime. While physical fitness, and the assessment thereof, remain essential, research communities and program delivery communities believe it is now important to turn attention to getting all children physically active so that it benefits health, rather than simply testing fitness to see current levels of aerobic, muscular, and body composition characteristics. The intent and desire is that engaging children and youth in meaningful physical activity will impact their fitness and health. It took many years but the multitude of individuals involved and the progress made over the past half-century have resulted in impressive opportunities for physical activity in youth. These opportunities are multidimensional and include not only in-school physical activity programs but before- and after- school programs, transportation, and the built environment. The Education Sector of the NPAP is evidence of this progress. A few caveats in closing: 1) Education changes take considerable time and effort. Educators need to “think big” and be ready to move; 2) Education changes need to be evidence-based so that truly effective changes can be adopted; 3) Policy implementation is essential to having concepts and programs move forward; 4) There are many constituencies (teachers, parents, students, administrators, policy makers, etc.) who want to help – we need to engage them all.


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Suggested Citation: Morrow, J. R. (2016). My, how things have changed in 40 years! The National Physical Activity Plan Education Sector. Physical Activity Plan Alliance Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health, 2(4).