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Physical Fitness (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
Physical activity provides an array of benefits. Research has shown that regular exercise among young people is associated with improvements in muscle development, bone strength, heart health, mental health, and academic performance (1, 2, 3). Children who regularly exercise 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 lifestyle into adulthood (1, 3). (Information on overweight/obese youth in California is available in’s Weight topic.)

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children and adolescents participate in moderate-to-vigorous exercise at least 60 minutes every day (1). Exercise should include aerobic activity (e.g., brisk walking or running), muscle strengthening (e.g., push-ups), and bone strengthening activities (e.g., jumping rope). However, according to a 2014 report, only about one quarter of youth nationwide get the recommended amount of exercise (1).
Find more information and research about physical fitness in's Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. (2014). 2014 United States report card on physical activity for children and youth. Retrieved from:

2.  Castelli, D. M., et al. (2015). Active education: Growing evidence on physical activity and academic performance. Active Living Research. Retrieved from:

3.  Child Trends Databank. (2014). Vigorous physical activity by youth. Retrieved from:
Policy Implications
Physical fitness is linked to improved health and academic performance, and it plays a key role in helping young people achieve and maintain a healthy weight (1, 2). California has been a leader in advancing policies to combat childhood obesity and overweight, and while progress has been made in recent years, the state, along with other states, continues to battle an overweight/obesity epidemic among children (3). One ongoing area for improvement is ensuring that schools meet state physical education requirements (4). Research has shown that 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 (4). Improving youth fitness also requires equitable access to safe places to play and built environments that encourage movement and physical activity, both in schools and communities (5, 6).

According to research and subject experts, 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, ensuring that PE programs have qualified teachers and that schools adopt policies requiring daily PE and elementary school recess (4, 5, 7)
  • Integrating physical activity opportunities throughout the school day, beyond PE classes, as well as before and after school (2, 7)
  • Promoting walk to school and Safe Routes to School programs, to encourage children to walk, roll, or bike to school (5, 7)
  • Making school 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 (5)
  • Encouraging child care and after-school programs to incorporate physical activity opportunities and adopt existing guidelines, such as the National AfterSchool Association Standards for Healthy Eating and Physical Activity, the California After School Physical Activity Guidelines, and Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance; Standards Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs (5, 7)
  • Supporting and planning for a built environment in schools and communities that encourages walking, bicycling, and outdoor play (5, 6, 7)
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.  National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. (2014). 2014 United States report card on physical activity for children and youth. Retrieved from:

2.  Castelli, D. M., et al. (2015). Active education: Growing evidence on physical activity and academic performance. Active Living Research. Retrieved from:

3.  Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2015). California: State reports decline in rates of overweight and obesity for grades 5, 7, and 9. Retrieved from:

4.  Sanchez-Vaznaugh, E. V., et al. (2013). When school districts fail to comply with state physical education laws, the fitness of California’s children lags. Active Living Research. Retrieved from:

5.  California Obesity Prevention Program. (2010). 2010 California obesity prevention plan: A vision for tomorrow, strategic actions for today. California Department of Public Health. Retrieved from:

6.  Lanza, A., et al. (2012). How the built environment contributes to the adolescent obesity epidemic: A multifaceted approach. Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, 8. Retrieved from:

7.  California Department of Education. (2015). Team California for Healthy Kids: Physical activity. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
In 2015, 26% of 5th graders in California public schools met all state fitness standards, a slight increase since 2011. The percentages for 7th and 9th graders have been consistently higher: 33% and 38%, respectively, in 2015. Figures vary widely at the county and school district levels. For example, in 2015, the percentage of 5th graders meeting all fitness standards ranged from 14% to 65% among California counties.

Higher percentages of Asian American, Filipino, White, and multiracial students meet fitness standards than Hispanic/Latino, African American/Black, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students in California.

In 2011-13, 63% of public school staff at California elementary, middle, high school, K-12, and non-traditional schools reported that "nearly all" or "most" students at their school were healthy and physically fit. Among school types, California middle school staff were the most likely to report that their students had access to "a lot" of physical education and activity opportunities.