How Has Exercise Changed From the Past to the Present for School Children?

The first modern fitness programs began in Europe and spread to America during the 19th century.

As the United States became an industrialized nation, people spent less time performing physical labor. Thus, the need for physical education programs in the schools became vital to ensure a healthy and fit society. Social, health and political factors have influenced school exercise programs in the United States from the past to the 21st century.


From 1700 to 1850, physical education expanded throughout Europe -- producing gymnastic programs in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and England. However, in America, no exercise programs existed due to the many hardships settlers incurred during the Colonial period.

In 1776, European immigrants began bringing gymnastics to America, but early American education remained focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. In fact, PE was not included in the school curriculum until after the Civil War ended in 1865.

Most post-Civil War exercise programs focused primarily on sports and games. The first instructional programs for PE teachers also began during this period.

Early to Mid-20th Century

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Physical-fitness testing of European and American children during the late 1940s and early 1950s revealed that 56 percent of American students failed at least one component of a fitness test that included leg lifts, situps, trunk lifts or toe touches, according to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. However, only 8 percent of European students failed one component. As a result, President Eisenhower established the President's Council on Physical Fitness, which included recommendations such as providing more time, equipment and personnel for PE instruction in the schools.

In 1966, the President's Physical Fitness Award provided recognition for good students who scored in the 15th percentile on activities including the softball throw, the broad jump, 50-yard dash and 600-yard walk or run. The council’s name later changed to the President's Council of Physical Fitness and Sports.

Late 20th Century

Despite prior efforts by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, 1970s physical education testing demonstrated no improvement -- which again prompted a desire to strengthen school activity programs. By the mid-1980s, school fitness testing components included situps, pull-ups, or flexed-arm hangs -- to measure upper-body strength -- and the one-mile walk or run, the V-sit reach and the shuttle run. Over the years, several presidents amended the council’s recommendations to further strengthen physical education programs.

Early 21st Century

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Most states do not require specific time spent in physical education classes, despite existing mandates for PE from elementary through high school, according to the "2012 Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA," jointly compiled by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association. The fall 2006 edition of the journal "Education Next," reported that, from 1991 to 2003, the number of U.S. high school students participating in daily PE classes dropped from 42 to 28 percent. But six years later, almost half of the states that require PE were still permitting excessive waivers, exemptions and substitutions for vigorous activity.

The American Heart Association recommends that students receive a minimum of 150 minutes of PE each week in elementary school and a minimum of 225 minutes weekly in middle school. In addition, the AHA suggests high-school graduation requirements include the successful completion of a PE program, with standards taught by certified PE teachers.