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WASHINGTON — The prestigious Institute of Medicine is recommending that U.S. public schools provide opportunities for at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day for students and that physical education become a core subject.

The report, released Thursday, says only about half of the nation’s youngsters are getting at least an hour of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity every day.

Another concern, the report says, is that 44 percent of school administrators report slashing big chunks of time from physical education, arts and recess since the passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001 to boost classroom time for reading and math.

With childhood obesity on the rise — about 17 percent of children ages 2 through 19 are obese — and kids spending much of the day in the classroom, the chairman of the committee that wrote the report said schools are the best place to help shape up the nation’s children.

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“Schools for years have been responsible for various health programs such as nutrition, breakfast and lunch, immunizations, screenings,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Physical activity should be placed alongside those programs to make it a priority for us as a society,” he said.

The report calls on the Education Department to recommend that phys ed be adopted as a core subject in school is the “only sure opportunity” for youngsters to have access to activity that will help keep them healthy.

Kitty Porterfield, spokeswoman for The School Superintendents Association, said nobody is opposed to physical education. “Everybody would love to see more of it in schools,” Porterfield said. “Given the testing and academic pressures for excellence on schools, often physical education slides to the bottom of the barrel.”

Most states — about 75 percent — mandate phys ed, according to the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. But most do not require a specific amount of time for it, and more than half allow exemptions or substitutions, such as marching band, cheerleading and community sports.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 30 percent of students nationwide attend phys-ed classes five days a week.

In Washington state, the law requires elementary and middle-school students to have 100 minutes of phys-ed instruction per week, an average of 20 minutes per school day. High-school students must earn at least 1.5 credits in fitness. One credit equals roughly 150 hours in class over the school year.

Schools can offer waivers to students from a variety of reasons, including physical disability, religious belief or because the student can demonstrate that he or she is getting the equivalent amount of exercise in other ways.

Among the Institute of Medicine’s other recommendations:

• All elementary-school students should spend an average of 30 minutes each day in phys-ed class.

• Middle- and high-school students should spend an average of 45 minutes each day in phys-ed class.

• State and local officials should find ways get children more physical activity in the school environment.

Seattle Times education reporter Linda Shaw contributed to this report.

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