PE Requirements and Overweight Youth

Do state physical education (PE) requirement help to decrease the percentage of children and teens who are overweight?

This is the question Cawley, Meyerhoefer and Newhouse investigate in their 2007 Health Economics paper.

One would certainly not be surprised if PE requirements decrease the prevalence of obesity, but this may not be correct.  PE requirements may have no effect if schools do not comply with the state mandates, or increased PE exercise may lead to decreased exercise outside of school (substitution).  Further, it is possible that PE classes may do little to promote exercise.  For instance, 12 states allow students to earn PE credit online.

To find the truth, the authors use Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System data from the 1999, 2001, and 2003.  The authors attempt to find the local average treatment effect (LATE) by using state PE requirements as an instrument for whether or not a given student has taken a PE class.

Cawley and co-authors conclude that “high school students with a binding PE requirement report an average of 31 additional minutes per week spent physically active in PE class. Our results also indicate that additional PE time raises the number of days per week that girls report having exercised vigorously or having engaged in strength-building activity. We find no evidence that PE lowers BMI or the probability that a student is overweight.”