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Increasing Physical Activity for all Americans: Reframing the “PE Debate”

Too often the conversation about encouraging Americans to be more active returns to the entrenched, and, at times, polarizing, battle over cuts to physical education. States and school districts across the country feel squeezed by diminished fiscal resources, as well as mounting pressure from parents and educators to increase academic class time. There is no question that physical education is important. But to increase opportunities to get more Americans moving, starting now, we must expand the dialogue beyond PE and outside the classroom.

In early December, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative joined the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in hosting a roundtable discussion to introduce two new ideas into the national conversation: “physical literacy” and using technology to inspire active lifestyles.

Physical literacy, a concept that started in Canada and has since been adopted by the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, is the notion that all kids—regardless of age and athletic ability—should learn the fundamental skills needed to lead active lives.  As Colin Hilton, President of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, explained, fundamental movement skills don’t necessarily “just happen” as part of normal development and parents often rely on others in the community to teach their kids these basic skills.  But the responsibility for encouraging activity cannot be left to schools alone.  That’s why physical literacy entails a philosophical change, one that calls on everyone in the community—from day care centers to senior centers—to be involved in making sure all Americans have the fundamental skills and confidence to be active from early childhood to old age.

Our event brought new voices to the physical activity conversation, including AARP, Mission Readiness, the National Park Service, and Verizon.  Larry White, with AARP, noted a range of benefits from seniors’ increased activity; Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, emphasized the importance of understanding why, as data shows, physical activity significantly drops off with age; and Verizon highlighted their robust employee wellness program, which creates a “culture of health” that encourages employees to be active throughout the work day. 

The group expressed marked interest in encouraging systemic change in schools, whereby both physical activity and physical education are prioritized as a core subject.  But they recognized that many school districts are under pressure to do too much with too few resources.  Participants also acknowledged that leadership and vision are a common denominator in places like Utah, where physical activity rates are climbing.  Katie Adamson of the YMCA pointed out that strong leadership and collective, consistent messaging—both from the local community and the Federal government—are essential to accomplishing such fundamental reforms.

Our second panel focused on the evolution of technology and popular culture, and the ways in which these developments provide new, and sometimes surprising, tools for getting people to be more active.  Contrary to the traditional view that technology increases sedentary behavior, we discussed how innovative technological changes have huge potential to increase physical activity, particularly, as we heard from our speakers, in the outdoors.

Founder of Two Bulls technology, Noah Harlan, demonstrated his company’s mobile application, “The Hidden Park,” a game that requires the user to move around a park to play.  Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator at the EPA and former Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, inspired the group with her presentation on a program she pioneered in Connecticut based on the “Amazing Race” called “The Great Park Pursuit.”  For eight weekends, families played the active adventure game in eight different state parks.  The program was so successful it helped preserve park funding amid dramatic state budget cuts and the Department of Transportation altered their bus routes to bring citizens closer to the parks.  Best of all, visitors continued going to the parks long after the game was over.

Consensus emerged that harnessing the power of technology and innovation must be an essential part of any strategy to increase physical activity.  As Dave Alberga, CEO of Active Network pointed out, technology does more than simply raise public awareness about opportunities; it can also help build data on use patterns to better target funding and policy opportunities.  Several participants noted ways in which technology and games can get more people moving in their daily lives, whether or not the activity is connected specifically to “healthy behavior.”  We learned that technology can make exercise the fun, easy choice and can be an unlikely ally to a healthier lifestyle.  

Perhaps the most important lesson of the day was that of collaboration.  The event brought diverse groups together—some for the first time—and we hope that those connections will lead to new and exciting partnerships down the road.  Our team looks forward to synthesizing what we heard and moving forward with actionable, consensus-based policy recommendations. 

For more information on the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, visit For more on Two Bulls’ mobile applications, visit For more on Connecticut’s “Great Park Pursuit,” visit

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