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Physical Fitness (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
Regular physical activity promotes health and well being. Consistent exercise is associated with improvements in muscle development, bone strength, weight control, heart health, mental health, and academic performance in young people (1, 2). Children who exercise regularly also are at lower risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and they are more likely to carry their active lifestyles into adulthood (1, 2).

Health experts recommend that children and adolescents ages 6-17 participate in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for a minimum of 60 minutes each day (1, 2). Exercise should include aerobic activity (e.g., running or bicycling), muscle strengthening (e.g., push-ups), and bone strengthening (e.g., jumping rope), each at least 3 days per week (1). However, the majority of young people nationwide do not get this recommended amount of physical activity (1, 2). Further, inequities by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status persist, with children of color less likely to meet recommended levels of exercise and low-income communities offering fewer opportunities for children to be physically active (3, 4).
Find more information about children's physical fitness in's Research & Links section. Also see's Weight topic for information about overweight and obese youth.

1.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Physical activity facts. Retrieved from:

2.  Child Trends Databank. (2017). Vigorous physical activity by youth. Retrieved from:

3.  National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. (2016). The 2016 United States report card on physical activity for children and youth. Retrieved from:

4.  As cited on, Students meeting all fitness standards, by race/ethnicity and grade level. (2018). California Department of Education, Physical Fitness Testing Research Files.
Policy Implications
Physical fitness is linked to positive health and academic outcomes, and it plays a key role in helping young people achieve and maintain a healthy weight (1). Most youth, statewide and nationally, do not meet recommended standards for physical activity or fitness (1, 2). While California has been a leader in advancing policies to promote physical fitness and combat childhood obesity, the state, along with other states, continues to face large disparities in fitness levels and obesity rates by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity (2, 3, 4).

Local, state, and federal policymakers can promote children’s physical fitness by preserving and effectively implementing existing policies and by making additional investments and policy changes in early childhood settings, schools, and communities. For example, California has set physical education requirements for schools but not all schools meet them (5, 6). Low-income, Hispanic/Latino, and African American/black students are more likely to attend schools that are not compliant with physical education mandates than white and higher-income students (5, 6). Improving youth fitness also requires equitable access to safe places to play and built environments that encourage physical activity, both in schools and communities (7, 8, 9).

Policy options that could improve children’s physical activity include:
  • Ensuring adequate funding, support, and compliance monitoring systems so that all schools meet or exceed state physical education (PE) requirements; also, encouraging schools to adopt comprehensive physical activity programs that include evidence-based PE with qualified teachers, daily physical activity during school beyond PE classes, and physical activity before and after school, with involvement from staff, families, and the community (6, 7, 8, 9)
  • Continuing to promote walk to school and Safe Routes to School programs, to increase the number of children walking or biking to school (7, 8, 10)
  • Encouraging schools to make recreational facilities available for use outside of school hours, especially in neighborhoods that lack such facilities; state and federal policies support joint-use agreements between schools and community organizations for this purpose (3, 7, 10)
  • Strengthening and ensuring implementation of policies to promote physical activity in after-school and early childhood settings, including staff training on existing guidelines, and supporting development of evidence-based physical activity programs in these settings; also increasing the accessibility and affordability of such programs in low-income neighborhoods (3, 7, 9, 11)
  • Promoting collaboration across sectors to address structural barriers that limit opportunities for physical activity, especially in low-income areas and communities of color; for example, incorporating health priorities into transportation and community planning to create safe built environments that encourage walking/biking and provide access to parks, recreation centers, or other places for play and physical activity (7, 9, 10)
  • Supporting comprehensive public health initiatives that utilize best practices to promote physical activity and include effective planning, leadership, evaluation, research, and advocacy (3, 9)
For more policy ideas about promoting physical activity among children, see’s Research & Links section, Active Living Research, or Action for Healthy Kids. Also see Policy Implications on under Weight and Nutrition.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Child Trends Databank. (2017). Vigorous physical activity by youth. Retrieved from:

2.  As cited on, Students meeting all fitness standards. (2018). California Department of Education, Physical Fitness Testing Research Files.

3.  The State of Obesity. (n.d.). The state of obesity in California. Trust for America's Health & Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Retrieved from:

4.  California Department of Public Health, & Nutrition Policy Institute. (2016). Obesity in California: The weight of the state, 2000-2014. Retrieved from:

5.  Sanchez-Vaznaugh, E. V., et al. (2017). Physical education policy compliance and Latino children’s fitness: Does the association vary by school neighborhood socioeconomic advantage? PLoS ONE, 12(6), e0178980. Retrieved from:

6.  Collins, A., & García, R. (2015). Physical education for all California public school students. The City Project. Retrieved from:

7.  California Department of Public Health. (2018). Physical activity resource guide: Implementing physical activity programming for SNAP-eligible populations (2nd ed.). Retrieved from:

8.  California Department of Education. (2017). Team California for Healthy Kids–Physical activity. Retrieved from:

9.  Pate, R. R., et al. (2016). Policies for promotion of physical activity and prevention of obesity in adolescence. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 14(2), 47-53. Retrieved from:

10.  California Department of Public Health, Division of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health. (2017). Systems and environmental change–Physical activity. Retrieved from:

11.  Cradock, A. L., et al. (2017). Using cost-effectiveness analysis to prioritize policy and programmatic approaches to physical activity promotion and obesity prevention in childhood. Preventive Medicine, 95(Suppl.), S17-S27. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
In 2017, about one in four California 5th graders met all state fitness standards, a figure that has remained relatively stable since 2011. During the same period, higher percentages of students in grades 7 and 9 met all fitness standards: 31% and 35%, respectively, in 2017. Among groups with data, Asian American, Filipino, white, and multiracial students were more likely to meet fitness standards than their Hispanic/Latino, African American/black, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native peers. In 2017, more than one-third of Asian American and white 5th graders met all fitness standards, compared to fewer than one-fifth of their Hispanic/Latino counterparts.

At the local level, there is wide variation in the percentage of students meeting fitness standards. For 5th graders in 2017, across locations with data, figures ranged from 13% to 78% at the county level and from 4% to 83% among school districts.

In 2013-2015, 11% of responses from elementary public school staff in California reported that nearly all students at their school were healthy and physically fit; this compares to 9% of responses from middle school staff, 6% from high school staff, and 5% from non-traditional program staff. When asked about opportunities for physical education and activity available at their school, 74% of responses by middle school staff indicated that these were provided a lot, followed by 58% of responses from elementary school staff, 56% of responses from high school staff, and 39% of responses from staff at non-traditional programs.