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Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005

NCES 2006-057
May 2006

Executive Summary

The rate of obesity among school-age children has become a national concern, with the number of overweight children aged 6 to 11 more than tripling over the past three decades (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2005). One way to address this health issue in schools is to emphasize an "energy balance" approach-calories consumed versus calories expended-to support healthy eating and an active lifestyle. This report is based on a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. It presents current national information for public elementary schools on the availability of foods outside of full school meals, the opportunities for students to engage in physical activity, and the physical assessment of students.

Availability of Foods Outside of Full School Meals

Most public elementary schools (94 percent) offered foods for sale outside of full school meals, and of these schools, 36 percent reported that foods were sold to generate funds to support food service operations at the school or district (figure 2 and table 2). Schools with any cafeteria or lunchroom food services indicated whether each of 15 foods was offered for sale outside of full school meals. Schools also reported the availability of nine of the listed foods (i.e., nondairy beverages and snack foods) at vending machines and school stores or snack bars, and the times when foods were available.

  • Most public elementary schools (88 percent) offered at least one of the listed foods for sale outside of full school meals at one or more locations in the school, and 84 percent offered at least one of the foods in the cafeteria or lunchroom (figure 3 and table 3). The schools offered both healthy and less nutritious foods for sale outside of full school meals, although a higher proportion of the schools offered nutritious than less nutritious items. For example, schools were more likely to offer 100% juice (53 percent), bottled water (46 percent), and green salad or fruit (40 percent) than less nutritious items such as soft drinks (12 percent), candy (15 percent), and french fried potatoes (17 percent).
  • Twenty-two percent of public elementary schools offered at least one of the nine nondairy beverages or snack foods at vending machines (tables 3 and 6), and 31 percent sold at least one of the foods at school stores or snack bars (tables 3 and 7).
  • Among the schools with vending machines, 33 percent had vending machine foods available during mealtimes, 46 percent had the foods available at other times during the school day, and 61 percent had the foods available to students outside of the school day (table 8). Among those with school stores or snack bars, 43 percent had foods available at this venue during mealtimes, 33 percent had the foods available at other times during the school day, and 41 percent had foods at school stores or snack bars available to students outside of the school day (table 9).

Opportunities for Students to Engage in Physical Activity

The study examined three indicators of physical activity-scheduled recess, scheduled physical education, and school activities or programs to encourage physical activity. Information on recess and physical education was collected separately for each grade that was considered elementary at the school, typically grades 1 through 5 or 6.

  • Most public elementary schools reported scheduled recess for students, with the proportion of schools ranging from 93 percent for first and second grades to 87 percent for sixth grades that were considered elementary at the school (table 12). Thus, the proportion of schools that had no scheduled recess ranged from 7 to 13 percent across elementary grades (figure 4 and tables 12 and 13).
  • Most public elementary schools reported daily recess, with the proportion of schools reporting this schedule ranging from 83 to 88 percent across elementary grades (figure 4 and tables 12 and 13). In addition, the average number of minutes per day of scheduled recess ranged from 27.8 for first grade to 23.8 for sixth grades that were considered elementary (table 15).1
  • While almost all public elementary schools (99 percent) reported that they scheduled physical education for elementary grades, the proportion of schools that provided daily physical education ranged from 17 to 22 percent across elementary grades (figure 6 and table 16). The average number of days per week of scheduled physical education was 2.4 times per week for first through fifth grades and 2.6 times per week for sixth grades that were considered elementary (table 17).2
  • Information on the length of physical education classes and the number of times per week of physical education was used to calculate the average number of minutes per week for each elementary grade (figure 7 and table 18). The average number of minutes per week of physical education ranged from 85.4 minutes for first grade to 98.0 minutes for sixth grades that were considered elementary. This included the schools with physical education classes that varied by number of days per week and class length.
  • When the number of minutes per week for physical education and recess were combined, the average number of minutes per week ranged from 208 to 222 minutes of scheduled recess and physical education across elementary grades (table 19).
  • Sixty-four percent of the schools used nontraditional physical education activities, such as dance or kick-boxing, to make physical education enjoyable (table 20) At least one-half of the schools used each of three other broad types of activities or programs to encourage physical activity among elementary grade students. These were opportunities during the school day for organized physical activities outside of physical education (58 percent), the President's Challenge Physical Activity and Fitness Award program (55 percent), and school-sponsored before- or after-school activities that emphasize physical activity (51 percent).

Physical Assessment of Students

  • Two-thirds of public elementary schools never calculated the students' body mass index (BMI) in 2005 (table 21). In addition, 28 percent of the schools never measured students' height, and 29 percent never measured students' weight.
  • Of the public elementary schools that measured students' height, 39 percent sent this information to parents (table 22). Similarly, 39 percent of the schools that measured students' weight sent the information to parents, while 49 percent of the schools that calculated students' BMI sent the information to parents.

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1 Includes schools with no scheduled recess.
2 Includes schools with no scheduled physical education.

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