To our knowledge this is the first study to examine nationally the impact of state and district-level policies on public ES PE and recess time practices. Results showed that state policies are associated with increased PE and recess time in ES. Having strong district-level PE laws was also associated with increased weekly PE minutes offered in schools. More importantly, although the federal wellness policy mandate did not require districts to address PE [37
], results show that having strong district-level PE policies increased the likelihood of schools having 150 or more minutes of weekly PE independent of the state having a strong PE law. We found instances where school districts adopted strong policies in states with weak or no policies (results not shown). We also found that the lack of necessary staff and the lack of PE as a district-level priority were barriers to having a greater number of weekly PE minutes. This finding coupled with results from a recent study showing that wellness policy provisions related to PA were weaker and less prominent than those related to nutrition [32
] highlights the need and importance of educating district administrators about the benefits to youth of receiving an adequate amount of daily PA, as well as providing schools with the necessary resources to fully implement new policies.
We found that weak, but not strong, state-level recess laws were associated with schools having at least 20 minutes of daily recess. However, only three states’ laws (Delaware, Nebraska, and Virginia) in our sample required daily recess and less than 2% of our school sample was located in these states, thus we have too few schools impacted by these laws to detect a significant effect. We also found no association between the number of weekly recess minutes offered by schools and school district recess policies; however, it is important to note that the wellness and related policies compiled for this study were not required to address recess so it may be that districts have other or informal policies that address recess time but that are outside the scope of this study.
Consistent with previous research [19
] we found that a barrier to meeting the national criterion for 20 minutes of recess daily was competing time demands. Results of both models showed schools that had either 20 minutes of daily recess or 150 minutes of weekly PE were less likely to have the other, although those with longer school days were more likely to meet the NASPE requirements. This suggests that schools are substituting one form of PA for another rather than providing the recommended amount of both recess and PE. With many districts placing greater emphasis on academic achievement, schools may be sacrificing PA time in lieu of more classroom instruction. Schools may need to be better informed about the growing evidence of the positive relationship between PA and academics [3
]. More research into this trade-off of school-based PA opportunities is warranted.
We also found that schools comprised primarily of racial and ethnic minority students as well as those containing the most socioeconomically disadvantaged students were less likely to offer at least 20 minutes of daily recess, with mixed racial and ethnic schools also receiving fewer weekly PE minutes. Latino and African-American children have higher rates of being at-risk of overweight or overweight than their white counterparts, and the prevalence of obesity is found to be significantly higher among low-versus high-income groups [39
]. Lower-income youth also participate less in PA [40
]. Existing evidence shows that students who are more physically active have lower BMI scores than more sedentary youth [38
], and that school-based PA has a positive effect on health outcomes and academic performance particularly among low-income and minority children [5
]. Therefore, it is important to develop strategies to increase the number of minutes of recess offered specifically for these vulnerable populations most at-risk to suffer the many health complications associated with obesity.