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Physical activity within physical education: Time for a rethink?

Posted on 16 June 2017

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​Research carried out by staff at Leeds Trinity University in partnership with Leeds Beckett University suggests physical education (PE) in the United Kingdom may be failing both teachers and children.

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the research suggests there is too much emphasis on increasing physical activity, at the cost of developing fundamental movement skills and sport skills, known as physical literacy.

Matthew Hobbs, a Lecturer in Physical Activity, Exercise and Health at Leeds Trinity University and PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University, said: "It's time to look beyond PE as a 'silver bullet' for resolving the inactivity crisis. While the quest for physical activity is important, it must not be at the expense of developing physically literate young people, encouraging life-long participation and the long-term health of children."

In the research, Hobbs highlights significant disparities between objectives for physical activity in PE in the UK and USA, and suggests that it's time for a re-think in both countries.

"The UK objective says that students should be actively moving for at least 50-80% of the available learning time," said Hobbs. "In contrast, the US objective states that they should engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for more than 50% of the time they spend in the PE class.

"The current objectives for both physical activity and PE need refining. They are underpinned by low-quality evidence and contain unacknowledged differences in physical activity intensity and duration."

Andy Daly-Smith, a senior lecturer in Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Beckett University's Carnegie School of Sport, said:

"As we move towards research informed practice, it is essential that objectives for physical activity in PE are appropriate. The uncompromising pursuit of these objectives by research and policy is concerning. It may cause teachers to focus on fitness-based physical activities, at the expense of fostering an enjoyment of physical activity or developing physical literacy."

An example of this is where a teacher may ask pupils how to effectively penetrate a defence in an invasion game. In addition to being active, children must also consider tactics, communications, leadership and responsibly; encouraging a wider range of experiences alongside physical activity. Some of the lesson may have caused inactivity – and therefore conflicts physical activity objectives – but supports the development of physical literacy, which is proven to contribute to adolescent physical activity.

Leeds Beckett University's Professor of Sport, Jim McKenna, added: "It is essential that objectives for physical activity and PE are now refined. For example, OFSTED has now called for teachers to engage pupils in sustained periods of high-intensity physical activity; we all know that this can reduce long-term motivation for