By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. schools need to boost efforts to get students moving, and make gym class as critical as other core subjects if they want to increase test scores as well as students' general well-being, a leading group of health advisers said on Thursday.
The Institute of Medicine called for younger students to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day in school and older students 45 minutes, with at least half that time spent moving vigorously.
Federal guidelines recommend that children and teenagers get at least one hour of daily physical activity but few do, especially as more schools cut gym classes to make more time to prepare for academic testing, the institute's influential panel of independent experts said.
Federal health officials should step in to designate physical education as a core academic subject, they said.
"Although most states currently have laws addressing physical education requirements in schools, there are no consistent nationwide policies," the panelists wrote in a report.
"Like most of the population of the United States, children and adolescents have grown accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle," panelists said.
Their recommendation comes on the heels of a renewed push against childhood obesity as well as disenchantment with the academic testing under the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. While aimed at boosting achievement and making U.S. students more competitive, a growing number of states have opted out of the requirements, saying they need more flexibility.
Since the law passed, 44 percent of school administrators have said they have cut "significant time" from gym classes and recess to focus on reading and mathematics, according to the nearly 400-page report, which was requested by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit research group that advocates for better public health.
Earlier this year, First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign announced a $70 million effort led by Nike Inc, General Mills Inc, health insurer Kaiser Permanente and others to help students get one hour of daily activity.
A growing body of data suggests increased physical activity can have a positive impact on students' academic performance, panelists added.
It could also help in the effort to fight fat in a nation where nearly one in five youth -- 12.5 million young Americans -- are obese and another third are overweight, making them more likely to be too heavy as adults.
Attention is increasingly turning to schools to help, not only through exercise but by also improving school meals.
Representatives at the U.S. Department of Education could not be immediately reached for comment on the recommendations, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan has linked good health to improved learning.
"We know active students are better able to engage in the classroom and excel academically," he said at the February event launching the first lady's partnership. "We need more of our schools creating environments that promote physical activity and play and encourage our students to get moving."
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)