Physical Activity

Creating A Culture of Physical Activity

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In this time of physical distancing and online physical education, it is more important than ever to create a culture where even at home, students are motivated to participate in physical activity.

Providing students with multiple opportunities to participate in movement as well as multiple role models who are also excited to engage in physical activity is key.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was part of a group of researchers who interviewed administrators and physical educators to learn about their experiences growing their whole-school physical activity programming. The study was focused on schools with physical education teachers who had registered with the Healthy Schools Program.

We published the results of our research in the September 2020 JOPERD article, “Focusing School Wellness Beyond Physical Education,” which is now available on the SHAPE America website.

JOPERD Cover September 2020

Simple Steps for Adding More Physical Activity in School

Here are some tips we learned from our discussions with administrators and physical educators for incorporating physical activity:

  • Get your principal’s buy-in. This may seem obvious but getting your principal on board can be the major change agent. Start by talking with your principal about the academic and behavioral benefits of having students out of their seats and moving in the classroom.
  • Have open gym time or other space on school grounds dedicated to recreational physical activity.
  • Show classroom teachers how to use simple online resources like GoNoodle.
  • Offer school-wide events like a Lunch Running Club that even teachers can join.

Please see Table 3 in our article (p.19) for more ideas of how the schools we talked to created support at their school. During the pandemic, be sure to follow state, city or county, and school district guidelines for COVID-19 to ensure the health and safety of staff and students.

SHAPE America 2020-2021 School Reentry Considerations: K-12 Physical Education, Health Education, and Physical Activity

How to Avoid Pitfalls

  • Start small. Both principals and physical education teachers indicated that overwhelming the school with new ideas can lead to failure. The No. 1 predictor of success at our schools was previous exposure to some type of whole-school physical activity initiative. This included the previous Let’s Move! Active Schools program at one school and a textbook resource at another school. The school without any previous exposure was having trouble achieving their whole-school physical activity programming goals.
  • Be a Resource. Classroom teachers with less comfort using online tools may need you to bookmark websites like GoNoodle or Brain Breaks so they can access them easily. Remember that many classroom teachers do not have experience leading or controlling students while moving. You can help classroom teachers by sharing strategies for beginning and ending physical activity breaks (such as always having a clear start and stop signal) so they can maintain order in their room and feel more able to lead movement on their own.
  • Stay Fresh. School representatives noted that over time, excitement would fade, especially as classroom teachers began feeling a time crunch related to testing. Regularly demonstrate in faculty meetings simple desk-appropriate activities that teachers can easily implement to give their students a much-needed movement break during stressful times.

Call to Action

In closing, we encourage you to just try something small that takes your promotion of healthy habits outside of scheduled physical education time.

As our article notes, there are always policy aspects outside of our immediate control such as how much time per session or how often we get to see students. What is in our immediate control is to encourage our whole school to be excited about making healthy choices.

Whether it’s CSPAP, Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child, Fitness for Life, or Healthier Generations, what all of these models have in common is a desire to involve the whole school community in the promotion of healthy living habits.

Start small but start now. Talk to your administrators, talk to classroom teachers, and let’s get the whole school moving together.

Additional Resources


Shannon Mulhearn
Shannon Mulhearn

Shannon C. Mulhearn is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in the Health and Physical Education program. She taught K-6 physical education in North Carolina and Arizona. Her professional interests include creating and supporting healthy and active school cultures and integrating mindful practices into physical education. She can be reached at mulhearns@unk.edu.

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