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:

Opportunity to Learn:
  • Instructional periods totaling 150 minutes per week (elementary) and 225 minutes per week (middle and high school)
  • Qualified physical education teachers providing a developmentally appropriate program
  • Teacher/student ratio in physical education no greater than 1:25 (elementary) and (1:30 middle/high) for optimal instruction (similar to other classroom settings)
  • Adequate equipment and facilities for all students to be active at the same time

Appropriate Instruction:
  • Use of instructional strategies that provide meaningful inclusion of all students regardless of skill or fitness level, gender, race or ethnic group
  • Maximum participation and ample practice opportunities for class activities
  • Well-designed lessons that facilitate student learning
  • Out of school assignments that support learning and practice of learned skills
  • Appropriate discipline and class management (physical activity should never be used as punishment) 
  • Use of regular assessment to monitor and reinforce student learning

Meaningful Content:
  • Instruction in a variety of motor skills that are designed to enhance the physical, mental, and social/emotional development of every child
  • Fitness education and assessment to help children understand, improve and/or maintain their physical well-being
  • Development of cognitive concepts about motor skill and fitness
  • Opportunities to improve emerging social and cooperative skills through physical activity and gain a multi-cultural perspective
  • Promotion of recommended amounts of physical activity now and throughout life
Student and Program Assessment:
  • Assessment is an ongoing, vital part of the physical education program
  • Formative and summative assessment of student progress
  • Student assessments align with state/national physical education standards and the written physical education curriculum
  • Assessment of program elements that support quality physical education
  • Stakeholders periodically evaluate the total physical education program effectiveness

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 school-age children accumulate at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of physical activity per day while avoiding prolonged periods of inactivity.

Opportunities to accumulate physical activity during the school day include time spent in physical education class, classroom-based movement, recess, walking or biking to school, and recreational sport and play that occurs before, during, and after school. Parents and grandparents are urged to get active with their children.

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.


SHAPE America encourages parents and community members to visit the local schools to view daily developmentally appropriate physical education classes and supplementary physical activity opportunities such as recess, physical activity breaks and after school programs. To learn more about the importance of physical education and physical activity, visit the SHAPE America Web site at www.shapeamerica.org.

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.