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J Health Econ. 2013 Jul;32(4):743-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2013.04.006. Epub 2013 May 9.

The impact of physical education on obesity among elementary school children.

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Department of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


In response to the dramatic rise in childhood obesity, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other organizations have advocated increasing the amount of time that elementary school children spend in physical education (PE) classes. However, little is known about the effect of PE on child weight. This paper measures that effect by instrumenting for child PE time with the state's mandated minimum number of minutes of PE, using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) for 1998-2004. Results from IV models indicate that PE lowers BMI z-score and reduces the probability of obesity among 5th graders. This effect is concentrated among boys; we find evidence that this gender difference is partly attributable to PE being a complement with other physical activity for boys, whereas they are substitutes for girls. This represents some of the first evidence of a causal effect of PE on youth obesity, and thus offers at least some support for the assumptions behind the CDC recommendations. We find no evidence that increased PE time crowds out time in academic courses or has spillovers to achievement test scores.

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