In this study, larger school campus, building, and play areas per enrolled student were associated with increased physical activity in middle school students. An approximate increase of 20% to 30% in average vector magnitude of physical activity was associated with the difference in total campus, school, and play areas per student seen in this sample of schools, independent of the other variables in the model. These increases translate into approximately 34 kcal/day, walking an extra 96 m/hour over an average school day, or walking 2 extra miles (3.2 km) weekly (see online appendix
). Given the substantial number of students attending schools, these subtle shifts in physical activity levels associated with the amount of space per student on school campuses, in school buildings, and in areas for play merit further consideration.
Isolating the exact feature(s) of the school campus associated with such shifts in physical activity will require more study. The variables of campus, playground, and building size per enrolled student were positively correlated in this sample of ten schools (r =0.60 to 0.89; p<0.07 to 0.001). These relationships make it difficult to disentangle the independent effects of each of these school characteristics on physical activity levels, and to determine whether the increases in physical activity levels observed in larger spaces were attributable to more instrumental activity (e.g., walking to and from classes or the cafeteria) or structured/unstructured recreational or programmed activities occurring in a larger space (e.g., gym or playground areas). For example, movement tended to peak at the beginning, middle, and end of the school day (). The movement mid-day likely includes travel to and from the cafeteria as well as free time spent in play areas or other school spaces. The early and late peaks likely represent movement associated with moving through a school building to homeroom classrooms or to the pickup areas at the end of the day. The location and physical movements of individual students within a school campus were not collected simultaneously in this study. However, the observations and school administrator reports of student movement and school day structure made during site visits to schools support the interpretation that both the built structure and the organization of time within a space may influence physical activity.
Nationally, communities are re-evaluating school site standards, and in doing so must address a host of complex and interrelated issues. The construction of a new school is influenced by many factors, including existing facilities and potential changes in school utilization.22
While larger schools (and school campuses) may be favored for their benefit for cost sharing in facility and equipment needs, small schools provide intimacy and the ability to promote individualized learning and involvement23
and easy access to the surrounding neighborhoods.24,25
Communities must balance issues such as congestion and air quality and transportation budgets, providing sites to which students can walk, and encouraging community use of schools25
—all while recognizing the need to provide a quality educational environment within the context of existing state regulations that can influence how and where schools are built.
Guidelines and regulations regarding school sites vary by state. In this study’s sample of Massachusetts schools, only one school was below the recommendation in the school architectural design literature20
for schools with comparable enrollments (i.e., 14.5 m2
/student). However, recently amended regulations in Massachusetts (603 Code of Massachusetts Regulations [CMR] 38.00, amended as of 2004) promote construction of smaller school buildings by limiting the Commonwealth’s share in construction cost for schools planning more than 135 square feet per pupil (12.5 m2
). This study’s findings also suggest that campus size may be a factor promoting increased physical activity in students. Massachusetts is one of 22 states without specific campus-size recommendations (http://cefpi.org/pdf/smartgrowthpub.pdf
). However, the state promotes placement of new schools in areas in close proximity to natural resources, businesses, and other cultural institutions (e.g., museums, libraries) in order to enhance the education programs (www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/603cmr38.html
). While this policy could potentially improve a school’s accessibility (thereby increasing the potential for active transport to school, parental involvement in student education, and use of facilities by community members), other states, by contrast, have differing requirements. California recommends campuses of 7 to 13 acres (28,328 to 80,937 m2
) for schools with enrollments comparable to this study sample. This is considerably larger than the median campus size (15,989 m2
) observed in this study. California’s guidelines reflect the prominent roles of PE and housing sufficient facilities for community recreation (www.cde.ca.gov/ls/fa/documents/schoolsiteanalysis2000.pdf
), as well as recent legislative efforts favoring class size reduction and gender equity; all of these efforts have increased requirements for number and types of play fields, classrooms, and parking for the additional staff.
However, the factors associated with increased physical activity observed in this study were not only designed features of schools. Features of school programming also influence physical activity levels, consistent with other studies in the literature.11,16
Increased participation in PE was directly associated with physical activity in all models (but reached statistical significance only in Model 3) (). Although this study is not well suited to fully explore the effect of changes in frequency of PE participation on physical activity due to the inability to match days of physical activity monitoring with those days that students participated in PE classes, these results support the conclusion that multiple aspects of the school environment can influence physical activity levels. The students in this sample reported higher rates of participation in PE in 1997 than Massachusetts high school students overall (96% vs 73%, respectively). However, rates of PE participation in Massachusetts are declining. By 2003, just 58% of Massachusetts high school students reported that they were enrolled in PE during an average week (http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/yrbss