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By USA Today
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:26 p.m.

Most students now can graduate from college without breaking a sweat — at least the physical kind.

Just 39 percent of four-year colleges had physical education requirements in 2010, down from two-thirds in the 1980s and 1990s, and 97 percent in the 1920s, say researchers who checked the websites of 354 randomly selected schools. The numbers were lowest at public schools.

Physical education advocates are not surprised.

“Students are really missing an opportunity to learn skills for a healthy life,” said lead researcher Brad Cardinal, professor of exercise and sports science at Oregon State University.

Oregon State has a physical education requirement, putting it in the company of such institutions as Columbia University, which still requires every student to pass a swimming test; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has an unusually robust, eight-hour requirement.

The cuts at many colleges, combined with those in K-12 schools, occur at a time when more students arrive on campuses overweight, inactive and poorly educated about nutrition, Cardinal says.

The study, published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, does not address why colleges dropped the requirements.

One factor is the broader shift away from requiring students to take many classes outside their majors, said Steve Mitchell, president-elect of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, and a physical education professor at Kent State University, which has no requirement.

There's generally a shift away from life skills to career skills and a push to graduate as quickly as possible, to minimize costs, Mitchell said.

Many students, instead, pay for shiny, new, come-when-you-can fitness centers, said Dennis Docheff, a professor of nutrition and kinesiology at the University of Central Missouri, which also doesn't require physical education.

He said the treadmills at his school's 2-year-old center are often full, but “not everyone is using them efficiently.”

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