Summary: Physical Fitness

Spotlight on Key Indicators: Physical Fitness

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Physical Fitness
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, mental health, and academic performance in young people (1). Compared with those who are physically inactive, children who exercise regularly are less likely to develop risk factors for chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes and are more likely to carry 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, according to 2016 estimates, fewer than one in four young people nationwide 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 physical fitness and low-income communities offering fewer opportunities for children to be physically active (2, 3).
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.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Physical activity facts. Retrieved from:

2.  National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. (2018). The 2018 United States report card on physical activity for children and youth. Retrieved from:

3.  As cited on, Students meeting all fitness standards, by race/ethnicity and grade level. (2021). California Department of Education.
How Children Are Faring
In 2019, fewer than one in four (23%) California 5th graders met state standards in all physical fitness areas, a figure that has remained relatively stable since 2011. During the same period, higher percentages of 7th graders (more than 28%) and 9th graders (at least 33%) met all standards. Girls were more likely than boys to meet fitness standards in 5th grade, but in 9th grade a higher percentage of boys met all standards. Across grade levels, Asian, Filipino, and white students were more likely to meet fitness standards than their peers in other groups.

At the local level, there is wide variation in the percentage of students meeting fitness standards. For 5th graders in 2019, across locations with data, figures ranged from less than 15% to more than 40% at the county level and from less than 7% to more than 70% among school districts.

In 2017-2019, 14% of responses from elementary public school staff in California reported strong agreement that students at their school were healthy and physically fit; this compares with 10% of responses from middle school staff, 9% from high school staff, and 7% from non-traditional program staff. When asked about opportunities for physical education and activity available at their school, 71% of responses by middle school staff indicated that these were provided a lot, followed by 64% of responses from elementary school staff, 52% of responses from high school staff, and 40% of responses from staff at non-traditional programs.
Policy Implications
Physical activity is linked to positive health and academic outcomes, and also contributes to 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 (2, 3). While California has been a leader in advancing policies to promote physical fitness and combat childhood obesity, the state continues to face large disparities in fitness levels and obesity rates by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity (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).

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)
  • Increasing the number of children walking or biking to school through promotion of walk-to-school and Safe Routes to School programs (7, 9)
  • 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 (7, 9)
  • 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 (7, 8, 10)
  • 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, 8, 9)
  • Supporting comprehensive public health initiatives that utilize best practices to promote physical activity and include effective planning, leadership, evaluation, research, and advocacy (8)
For more policy ideas about promoting physical activity among children, see’s Research & Links section or visit Active Living Research and Action for Healthy Kids. Also see Policy Implications on under Weight and Nutrition.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Physical activity facts. Retrieved from:

2.  National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. (2018). The 2018 United States report card on physical activity for children and youth. Retrieved from:

3.  As cited on, Students meeting all fitness standards. (2021). California Department of Education.

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.  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:

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

8.  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:

9.  California Department of Public Health, Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Division. (2021). Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative: Systems and environmental changes. Retrieved from:

10.  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:
Websites with Related Information
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