Bone Strength—A Hidden Benefit of Exercise for Children

I have spent a lot of time looking through the physical education content standards from my home state, California. These standards focus on three categories of physical development in the various grade levels:

  • Improved aerobic capacity
  • Improved muscular strength
  • Increased flexibility

Curiously, I have yet to find a set of state standards that mentions bone-strength development.

Bone strengthening does appear, however, in the official fitness guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a branch of the Federal  Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC’s recommendations for children’s exercise include three categories of emphasis:

  • Aerobic Activity
  • Muscle Strengthening
  • Bone Strengthening

Building bone strength is an important benefit of exercise for children. When children engage in movements in which their feet strike the ground, the impact stresses the leg. Over time, this stress causes the bones of the legs to thicken and strengthen. Two great exercises that help build bone strength are running and jumping rope.

Although state PE standards fail to mention bone strengthening, K–5 classroom teachers should remember this “hidden” benefit as they encourage children to exercise. Share information about building bone strength with your students to give them a deeper understanding of why physical activity is good.

Most of the activities in the PE by Design program feature running exercises that improve bone strength. To purchase the PE by Design book, click here.


What Activities Count as PE?

Recently, during my presentation to the elementary teaching credential candidates at Dominican University of California, in San Rafael, a student asked me an interesting question: “What activities count as PE?” Where I teach, elementary schools are under increased scrutiny to meet California’s state PE requirement (200 minutes of PE instruction, every 10 school days). Increasingly, classroom teachers are being asked not only to meet those minutes, but also to document their activity choices and present the information to their administrators. The student who asked the question worried about teaching something she considers to be a valid PE activity and finding out later that her administrator disagrees.

Unless your district or school has a strict policy that calls for all PE activities to meet state and/or national PE guidelines, chances are there’s a lot of leeway in judging whether a PE activity is acceptable. To determine if something is a valid PE activity, ask yourself two key questions.

Does the activity involve instruction? Let’s say you set out some cones, simply tell your students to run, and then watch as they race around the cones for 10 minutes. That is a great activity in terms of fitness, but the amount of instruction is minimal. I would consider this a valid PE activity, but barely. What if you bring your students together at the end of the run and discuss the importance of running to their health, referencing the fact that children should receive 60 minutes of exercise per day? Now, you are adding a strong instruction piece to the activity. A lack of instruction explains why recess, in which children play freely without input from a teacher, is not regarded as physical education by most educators.

Can you reasonably argue that the activity is a valid physical education activity? This guideline is vague, I know. But deciding whether an activity counts as PE depends in part on whether you can make a strong case for its validity. When considering an activity, ask yourself these additional questions:

  • Does the activity get my students moving?
  • To what extent are my students interacting during the activity?
  • Are my students working to develop specific fitness skills?

If the activity meets one or more of these criteria, then you’re probably OK.

For example, let’s say you bring out a set of beanbags. You demonstrate the proper form for an underhand toss, then you put students into small groups to work on tossing and catching. Would this count as a valid PE activity? I think it would. There is a strong instruction piece—teaching the form at the beginning. Though the beanbag toss is not rigorous physically, the students are developing physical skills (toss and catch). Additionally, they are developing social skills by working together in groups.

If you wonder whether the activities you choose are acceptable, talk with your administrator. They can alert you to specific PE considerations for your school or district, and they will appreciate your proactive step of seeking their feedback.


SHAPE America Standards—A Good Foundation for K–5 PE Programs

When K–5 classroom teachers begin teaching PE, they’re likely to have many questions: What activities should I do with my students? What type of equipment should I use? What guidelines should I follow? These are challenging questions for classroom teachers who have no formal fitness background and no formal training in how to teach PE. Although most states have PE content standards designed to guide teachers, these standards can be overwhelming for classroom teachers. State PE standards tend to be very detailed. (In California, where I live, there are approximately 50–60 standards per grade level.)

I suggest a different approach for K–5 classroom teachers. SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) America is the most prominent PE advocacy group in the United States. SHAPE America has produced a set of 5 physical education standards. These standards are quite broad. They do not describe specific physical education activities, but they do capture the essence of what PE in our schools should emphasize—movement, creative expression, and developing a life-long appreciation for exercise.

In one area, SHAPE America’s standards may be too much for classroom teachers. SHAPE emphasizes gauging students’ progress over time. For example, Standard 1 states “The physically literate individual demonstrates competency in a variety of motor skills and movement patterns.” That word, demonstrates, is a call for periodic assessments. SHAPE America wants teachers to be able to prove that the standards have been met.

Asking K–5 classroom teachers to assess their students periodically may be unrealistic. Ideally, assessments would show progress, but classroom teachers have so much else to do, they’re unlikely to find time for multiple assessments.

If you are struggling with basic questions as you start creating your PE program, check out SHAPE America’s national standards. They will help you build a good ideological foundation for your program. Click here to view the standards.