Is It Physical Education or Physical Activity?

Understanding the Difference

With heightened attention on childhood obesity prevention efforts, there seems to be some confusion between the terms "physical education" and "physical activity." Often the words are used interchangeably but they differ in important ways. Understanding the difference between the two is critical to understanding why both contribute to the development of healthy, active children. SHAPE America believes every child in the United States deserves both a quality physical education and physical activity program.

School physical education programs offer the best opportunity to provide physical activity to all children and to teach them the skills and knowledge needed to establish and sustain an active lifestyle. Physical education teachers assess student knowledge, motor and social skills, and provide instruction in a safe, supportive environment. SHAPE America recommends that schools provide 150 minutes of instructional physical education for elementary school children, and 225 minutes for middle and high school students per week for the entire school year. Based on sequence of learning, physical education should not be compared to or confused with other physical activity experiences such as recess, intramurals, or recreational endeavors.

A quality physical education program provides learning opportunities, appropriate instruction, meaningful and challenging content for all children, and should include these essential components:

Policy and Environment:
  • Every student is required to take daily physical education in grades K–12, with instruction periods totaling 150minutes/ week in elementary and 225 minutes/week in middle and high school. ″School districts and schools require full inclusion of all students in physical education
  • School districts and schools do not allow waivers from physical education class time or credit requirements.
  • School districts and schools do not allow student exemptions from physical education class time or credit requirements.
  • School districts and schools prohibit students from substituting other activities (e.g., JROTC, interscholastic sports) for physical education class time or credit requirements.
  • Physical education class size is consistent with that of other subject areas and aligns with school district and school teacher/student ratio policy.
  • Physical activity is not assigned or withheld as punishment.
  • Physical education is taught by a state-licensed or state-certified teacher who is endorsed to teach physical education.

Curriculum:
  • Schools should have a written physical education curriculum for grades K-12 that is sequential and comprehensive.
  • Physical education curriculum is based on national and/or state standards and grade-level outcomes for physical education.
  • The physical education curriculum mirrors other school district and school curricula in its design and schedule for periodic review/update.

Appropriate Instruction:
  • The physical education teacher uses instructional practices and deliberate-practice tasks that support the goals and objectives defined in the school district's/school's physical education curriculum (e.g., differentiated instruction, active engagement, modified activities, self-assessment, self-monitoring).
  • The physical education teacher evaluates student learning continually to document teacher effectiveness.
  • The physical education teacher employs instructional practices that engage students in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 50 percent of class time.
  • The physical education teacher ensures the inclusion of all students and makes the necessary adaptations for students with special needs or disabilities.
Student Assessment:
  • Student assessment is aligned with national and/or state physical education standards and established grade-level outcomes, and is included in the written physical education curriculum along with administration protocols.
  • Student assessment includes evidence-based practices that measure student achievement in all areas of instruction, including physical fitness.
  • Grading is related directly to the student learning objectives identified in the written physical education curriculum.
  • The physical education teacher follows school and school district protocols for reporting and communicating student progress to students and parents.

Physical activity is bodily movement of any type and may include recreational, fitness and sport activities such as jumping rope, playing soccer, lifting weights, as well as daily activities such as walking to the store, taking the stairs or raking the leaves. Similar health benefits to those received during a physical education class are possible during physical activity bouts when the participant is active at an intensity that increases heart rate and produces heavier than normal breathing. SHAPE America recommends implementing a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program (CSPAP) for students to achieve at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of physical activity per day.

A Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program (CSPAP) is a multi-component approach by which school districts and schools provide multiple opportunities to accumulate 60 minutes of physical activity before, during and after the school day.Physical education is the foundation of the CSPAP model and ensures an opportunity for physical activity for every student in school. Additional opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day include classroom-based movement,recess, intramural sports and various before and after school activities. A CSPAP also includes opportunities for staff, family and community members to engage in physical activity.

The benefits of regular physical activity include:
  • Reduces the risk for overweight, diabetes and other chronic diseases
  • Assists in improved academic performance
  • Helps children feel better about themselves
  • Reduces the risk for depression and the effects of stress
  • Helps children prepare to be productive, healthy members of society and
  • Improves overall quality of life.


It is important to understand not only the differences between physical education and physical activity, but also how they work together to develop students' knowledge, skills, and confidence to be physically active for a lifetime. Physical education is where students learn to be physically active and physical activity programs provide opportunities for students to practice what they learn in physical education. To learn more about the essential components of physical education visit our page here. To learn more about CSPAP visit our webpage here.

Citation: Ballard, K, Caldwell D, Dunn C, Hardison A, Newkirk, J, Sanderson M, Thaxton Vodicka S, Thomas C Move More, NC's Recommended Standards For Physical Activity In School. North Carolina DHHS, NC Division of Public Health, Raleigh, NC; 2005.