Publication Date:

Mar 01, 2017

Trends in Vigorous Physical Activity by Youth

In 2005, HHS redefined the recommended levels of physical activity, from 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days per week, to 60 minutes of activity (that includes vigorous exercise some of the time) at least five days per week.[1] Between 1993 and 2005, the percentage of high school students meeting the former level of recommended physical activity remained fairly steady, ranging between 63 and 69 percent. Between 2005 and 2009, about one-third of high school students met the revised recommended levels of physical activity, with no significant changes over that time period. The HHS guideline was changed once again in 2008, to the current recommendation of 60 minutes of physical activity daily. From 2011 to 2015, fewer than three in ten students met the recommendation, with no significant changes over that time period.[2] (Figure 1)

Differences by Gender

A much higher percentage of adolescent males participate in vigorous physical activity than do their female peers. Within all racial and ethnic subgroups, levels for males are between 14 and 20 percentage points higher than those for females. (Appendix 1) Differences between males and females are also significant at all grade levels. (Figure 2)

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin[3]

White students are more likely than black or Hispanic youth to meet recommended levels of physical activity. In 2015, 29 percent of white students met recommended levels, compared with 24 and 25 percent of black and Hispanic youth, respectively. Among males, white students were the most likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity, and Hispanics were slightly more likely than blacks to meet recommended levels (39, 34, and 31 percent, respectively). For females, whites were also the most likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity, but black females were slightly more likely than Hispanic females to meet recommended levels (20, 17, and 15 percent, respectively). (Figure 3)

Differences by grade

In 2015, ninth- and tenth-graders were more likely than eleventh- and twelfth-graders to get the recommended amount of physical activity (31 and 28 percent, versus 25 and 24 percent, respectively). (Appendix 1) This difference was evident across genders: 12th-grade males and females were 8 and 7 percentage points, respectively, less likely than their 9th-grade counterparts to meet physical activity recommendations. (Figure 2)

Other Estimates

State and Local Estimates

2015 estimates of vigorous physical activity among high school students are available for select states and cities from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) (See Table 96)

For all states, 2011/2012 estimates of the number of days in the past week children (ages 6 to 17) engaged in vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes are available from the National Survey for Children’s Health, and through the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

International Estimates

International estimates of physical activity for youth ages 11, 13, and 15 are available for 2013/2014, for countries participating in the Health Behavior of School-Aged Children Survey.

Data and Appendix

Data Sources

Data for 2011-2015: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016). 1991-2015 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Accessed on 12/23/2016. Retrieved from

Data for 1993-2009: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Youth risk behavior surveillance: United States {various years]. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 44:59. Retrieved from

Raw Data Source

Youth Risk Behavior Survey




As used here, vigorous physical activity refers to activities that caused increased heart rate and hard breathing some of the time, for a total of 60 minutes a day, on all seven days preceding the survey.


[1]CDC, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). 2008 Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Chapter 3: Active children and adolescents. Retrieved from

[2]Because of changes to the survey question starting in 2011, national YRBS prevalence estimates of physical activity in 2011 are not comparable to those reported in 2009 or earlier.  For this reason, the 2005 recommendation data are used for 2009, even though 2008 recommendation data are available.

[3]Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics.

Suggested Citation

Child Trends Databank. (2017). Vigorous physical activity by youth. Available at: