The Impact of Physical Education on Obesity among Elementary School Children

John Cawley, David Frisvold, Chad Meyerhoefer

NBER Working Paper No. 18341
Issued in August 2012
NBER Program(s):   CH   ED   HE   LE   PE

In response to the dramatic rise in childhood obesity, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other organizations have advocated increasing the time that elementary school children spend in physical education (PE) classes. However, little is known about the effect of PE on child weight. This paper measures that effect by instrumenting for child PE time with state policies, using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) for 1998-2004. Results from IV models indicate that PE lowers BMI z-score and reduces the probability of obesity among 5th graders (in particular, boys), while the instrument is insufficiently powerful to reliably estimate effects for younger children. This represents some of the first evidence of a causal effect of PE on youth obesity, and thus offers at least some support to the assumptions behind the CDC recommendations. We find no evidence that increased PE time crowds out time in academic courses or has spillovers to achievement test scores.

download in pdf format
   (429 K)

email paper

The NBER Bulletin on Aging and Health provides summaries of publications like this.  You can sign up to receive the NBER Bulletin on Aging and Health by email.

This paper is available as PDF (429 K) or via email.

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w18341

Published: Cawley, John, David Frisvold, and Chad Meyerhoefer. "The Impact of Physical Education on Obesity among Elementary School Children." Journal of Health Economics, 2013, 32(4): 743-755. citation courtesy of

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded these:
Cawley, Meyerhoefer, and Newhouse w11411 The Impact of State Physical Education Requirements on Youth Physical Activity and Overweight
Lavy w10678 Do Gender Stereotypes Reduce Girls' Human Capital Outcomes? Evidence from a Natural Experiment
Millimet, Tchernis, and Husain w14297 School Nutrition Programs and the Incidence of Childhood Obesity
Baum and Chou w17423 The Socio-Economic Causes of Obesity
Jaimovich and Siu w18334 The Trend is the Cycle: Job Polarization and Jobless Recoveries
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us