UT School of Public Health in Austin

University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin

Effective School Investment in Physical Activity: Calibrating Costs and Benefits


A key question in deciding how to move forward on any change to policy or practice is: Is the improvement we expect to see worth the cost of making the change? Physical activity at school is no different. Advocacy for additional investments in strategies to support physical activity at school will be more effective with informed budget proposals.

There is research on the cost-effectiveness of school-based physical activity strategies, but we simply do not know how physical activity gains vary by investment level. Some districts may currently invest in physical activity efforts sufficiently to produce meaningful gains in physical activity among students, whereas others—likely in lower-resource communities and/or predominately racial and ethnic minority communities—may need significant additional investment.

The goal of this project is to estimate the cost-effectiveness of investments in three different school-based physical activity strategies: PE, classroom activity breaks, and recess. We will measure physical activity gains by level of investment, which is defined as the average cost of a given physical activity strategy per pupil. The research will be based on literature reviews.

Whereas most studies focus on average effect sizes of an intervention, we emphasize nonlinearities, or situations where the input (investments in PE, classroom activity breaks, or recess) may not be directly proportional to the outputs (increases in student physical activity).

For instance, a school with a gym and several outdoor facilities and a low PE teacher to pupil ratio may not gain much, i.e. more physical activity, by adding a PE teacher and/or new facilities. The same investment at a low-resource school would yield larger gains in terms of new physical activity. These hypotheses, based on economic thinking, are largely in line with disparities research, which would advocate for more investment in low socioeconomic status schools.

Communication Plan/Projected Products

Based on our findings, we will create an online calculator for policymakers to estimate the effects of physical activity investments on physical activity.  The calculator may be inserted into one of our existing communication channels, such as our Dell Center for Healthy Living website, or another platform that has wide reach with policymakers.  We will also write a brief non-technical summary aimed at policymakers and school officials at the state, district and school level.

Project Team

Shelton Brown III, PhD – Principal Investigator
Andrew Springer, DRPH – Co-Investigator