policy impact on physical activity in schools – dr liam kelly

What is already known on this topic 

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for premature mortality worldwide. To improve public health and to prevent NCDs, the World Health Organisation (WHO) physical activity (PA) guidelines recommend an average of 60mins of daily MVPA for children. Despite all the evidence of benefits, epidemiological data indicate that over 80% of children and adolescents globally do not meet PA recommendations.

Schools are an important setting because they reach the majority of children and adolescents, who spend a substantial amount of time in this setting. Policies that support PA in schools may be promising, but their impact on PA behaviour is poorly understood. The aim of this PEN SLR was to ascertain the level and type of evidence reported in the international scientific literature for policies within the school setting that contribute directly or indirectly to increasing PA.

What our study adds

9 Policy Areas

Evidence emerged for nine policy areas that had a direct or indirect effect on PA within the school setting. These were whole school PA policy, physical education, sport/extracurricular PA, classroom-based PA, active breaks, physical environment, shared use agreements, active school transport and surveillance (Figure A).

22 Policy Actions with varying quantity and quality of evidence

Twenty-two policy actions across the 9 areas were found. Frequency of evidence was highest for sport/extracurricular PA (35%), 17% for physical education PA and 12% for whole school PA policy, with evidence for shared use agreements between schools and local communities rarely reported (2%).

  • Evidence supports the effectiveness of PA policy actions within the school-setting but cautions against a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.
  • Further evaluation of policy implementation to maximise translation into practice is required.
  • Greater clarity regarding terminology, measurement, and methods for evaluation of policy interventions is needed, and suggestions provided.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Strong support was found for a mandated minimum PE time. This policy approach is welcome due to its potential to reduce disparities across schools
  2. Enforcing regulations requiring professional licensure of PE teachers is supported by our review and other research adding weight to the role of the PE specialist as a PA ambassador for schools.
  3. The type of extra-curricular sport model may exacerbate sex-based sport participation disparities due to the element of self-segregation, since girls may be less willing to participate when boys are present.
  4. Additional policy areas for opportunities to promote PA in both primary and secondary schools include minimum duration of break times and using policy to provide youth with access to PA physical spaces that maximise the impact of the school’s physical environment.
  5. Opening school facilities to local communities through Shared Use Agreements resulted in more adults and children using these facilities outside of school hours and was positively associated with PA in under-resourced communities when supported with good-quality PA programmes.


C Woods, K Volf, L Kelly, B Casey, P Gelius, S Messing, S Forberger, J Lakerveld, J Zukowska5, E García Bengoechea on behalf of the PEN consortium. (2021). The evidence for the impact of policy on physical activity outcomes within the school setting: A systematic review. Journal of Sport and Health Science. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2021.01.006

Dr. Liam Kelly is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, UL,  in the area of Physical Activity and Health Policy. Liam is part of the Policy Evaluation Network (PEN; https://www.jpi-pen.eu/) Work Package 1 team which aims to provide an overview of public policies with direct/indirect potential influence on physical activity policy environments and develop the first prototype of the Physical Activity Environment Policy Index (PA-EPI). Liam is also acting chair of the PEN Early Careers Network.

Contact: Liam.Kelly@ul.ie. Follow on twitter: @liamkellyIRL

Liam Kelly

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