130415_CCF_ChickenWings_picThe debate over childhood obesity has primarily centered on the nutritional aspects of foods offered to children, and banning “junk food” has become the trendy way to tackle it. But a new study by researchers from Cornell University published in the Journal of Health Economics reminds us that there are two sides to this debate. According to the study, physical education can make a real impact on kids’ body weight.

While anti-food-choice policies like soda taxes show little hope of actually getting people to shed pounds, the study suggests that physical education offers more promise. Researchers from Cornell University concluded that each additional hour of physical education by fifth-grade boys lowers their probability of obesity by 4.8 percent, although the benefits were negligible among girls. The study is significant in establishing a link between increased physical education and reduced likelihoods of childhood obesity.

Even the Institute of Medicine, which last year re-entered the food fight with a manifesto calling for widespread restrictions on food choices for kids and adults, recognizes the importance of P.E. It released recommendations in May titled Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School calling for an increased emphasis on physical education and physical activity in kids. Among the authors’ recommendations for addressing this issue are that elementary school children receive at least 30 minutes of physical education at school each day, and that the Department of Education designate physical education as a core subject.

The study comes on top of a February 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found children are consuming fewer calories than before. That study prompted William Dietz, former director of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at CDC, to say that, “The only way that we can explain the decline in calories and the increase in obesity in boys, flat in girls, is that physical activity has declined. And if that’s the case, that’s a real concern, because physical activity plays a major role in the prevention of chronic diseases, including obesity.”

Just as importantly, researchers from the Institute of Medicine concluded that in addition to improving a child’s health, increased physical activity is associated with higher levels of attention, better cognitive skills, and even higher scores on standardized tests when compared to less physically active children. Thus, educators are not faced with the dilemma of having to sacrifice academic development in order to achieve better health outcomes for their students – in other words, a win-win for all.