Getting into college may seem harder than ever, but it's never been easier for students to become a couch potato on campus, new research suggests.
That's because the number of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. with a physical education requirement is at an all-time low. A new study has revealed that just 39.5 percent of colleges require their students to take physical education classes.
"This is the lowest percentage — by far — in the history of studies like this, which date back to the 1920s," said study author Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise and sport science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "The percentage had never been below the mid-50 percent range before, and it was 97 percent back in the 1920s."
For the study, researchers randomly selected 354 four-year U.S. colleges and reviewed each school's website to see if phys ed was needed in order for students to earn a bachelor's degree.
They found that roughly 60 percent of colleges did not have any physical education graduation requirement. The nearly 40 percent of institutions that made gym mandatory ranged from a high of nine credit hours at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho and eight credits at the United States Military Academy in New York State to those that required students to take phys ed courses but didn't award credits for doing so.
Only 37 percent of public institutions involved in the survey required phys ed classes compared with about 63 percent of private ones.
The study was published in the December issue of the journal Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sports.
Fitness on campus
The last time a comparable nationwide survey was done was in 1998, 63 percent of institutions required phys ed. Those figures have plunged over the last decade to a record low of 39.5 percent while the number of college students who are either overweight or obese has soared.
For many undergrads, their texting thumbs might be getting more of a workout than the rest of their bodies. Many students are insufficiently active or sedentary, and they're preparing for future jobs where they'll be frequently sitting, Cardinal explained. Such inactivity has been linked to health issues such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
At Oregon State, the public university where Cardinal teaches, students need just three credits of physical education in order to graduate. They must take a two-credit "healthy living" course, which covers nutrition, stress management, exercise and disease prevention. In addition they must attend a one-credit activity class or a lab focused on positive health behavior change that helps students assess their fitness and health behaviors and then establish a plan to improve their behaviors.
Cardinal said he considered such classes to be a bare minimum requirement at the collegiate level, and pointed to alumni studies that have found students who took more phys ed courses while in college were healthier seven to 11 years after graduation than those who took fewer classes or none.
Phys ed as preventive medicine
Colleges aren't the only educational institutions phasing out mandatory physical education. Indeed, they are mirroring a pattern seen at the elementary, middle, and high school levels — cuts also experienced by music and art curriculums.
Why is this happening? Cardinal said that beginning in the late 1960s and early '70s, all general education requirements were challenged, not just physical education. And this increased focus on pure academics and budget slashing continues today.
Although phys ed may no longer be required to earn a diploma, many college campuses have expanded their recreational facilities to include state-of-the-art fitness centers, swimming pools, and exercise classes offering everything from aerobics to Zumba. Some university personnel may assume that these recreation centers, along with competitive sports and intramural leagues, provide students with sufficient exercise opportunities
While top-notch gyms and sports programs may attract jocks and the fitness-minded, Cardinal argued that recreation centers can be intimidating for others. "Physical education today is really about healthy lifestyle management," suggested Cardinal. "It is a form of preventive medicine."
"You cannot function optimally unless you are healthy — healthy to learn and healthy to work," Cardinal added. "If we educate only the mind and neglect the body, we are doing our students a disservice."
Pass it on: Colleges are phasing out physical education classes despite rising obesity rates.