How I Would Change Gym Class

Gym class was not a great time for me.

To understand exactly how painful grade school PE was back in my day, you must experience “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go.” Back in early 1960s, PE was all about preparing for and passing the Presidential Fitness Test, which was JFK’s youth fitness standards. “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go” was a ridiculous song written expressly for the Presidential challenge and sung by a guy named Robert Preston. Every single day during PE class, we did calisthenics as it blasted over the PA system on repeat. We’d do pushups, jumping jacks, squat thrusts, chinups, all while listening to this masterpiece – I think I’m finally realizing why I hated strength training and gravitated toward long distance endurance events for the bulk of my youth! We occasionally got to play dodgeball, and those were good days. Head shots were allowed and even encouraged. No PC stuff anywhere.

My first year of high school gym was rough, too. You see, I placed out of a few of my classes, so they bumped me up to an all-senior PE class as a freshman. I actually don’t remember all that much about the PE curriculum. It might have been great, but I wouldn’t have known because I was too busy avoiding purple nurples and dodging rat tails in the locker room. Oh, and back then we had to shower during gym, so wet towels were exclusively used for rat tail production. Let’s just say that you really don’t know pain until you’ve felt a sopping wet rat tail inscribe itself across your lower ribcage. Fun stuff. Once spring track season rolled around, though, I was the top point man on the team, usually winning the mile and two mile, and placing in the pole vault. That got me some cred and made the rest of high school bearable.

But gym was never great for me.

So today, I’m going to explain what I’d change about gym class if I was given the chance to teach or administer it. I suppose the first thing I’d change about physical eduction in schools is to make sure it still exists! Standardized testing, and all the madness that surrounds and enables it, along with tight budgets, have forced schools to cut the “non-essentials,” including gym, music, and art. I’ve definitely got nothing against math, social studies, science, and English, but being active is just as essential as those subjects. Heck, even recess is getting cut in some places. That’s just criminal.

No, I’m not considering a new career path, and no, this isn’t a policy discussion. I’m not proposing comprehensive school reform (although that’s probably what it’d take to work). I’m just having fun. In the process, hopefully I outline some tangible activities you parents find helpful enough to try. The “revolution,” if there’s going to be one, must start at the local level. You start legislating education from afar and you end up with stuff like the “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go” song playing on repeat over an aging PA system and scaring an entire generation away from pullups. You can’t rely on that. You have to be the change you seek, whether that’s playing tag with your kids on weekends, banding together with other concerned parents for “PE meetups” outside of school, or putting pressure on your kids’ schools to make time for gym and recess. Maybe you could even be a PE teacher and start the change from the inside (though I don’t know how much freedom PE teachers get to construct their own programs).

If I was put in charge of leading gym class, I’d only employ competent coaches with athletic or training backgrounds. No more math teachers filling in because there’s no money to hire a dedicated coach. They’d have to be certified through something like NCSA, and there would be a lengthy interview process. All teachers would have to be physically fit themselves, able to perform and teach (including scaling up or down for all fitness levels) basic strength and conditioning movements, and be willing to go on record against Chronic Cardio (Ok, that last one’s a joke. Kinda.).

For grade school kids, I’d:

Abolish chairs. You ever see a kid squat? They do it effortlessly. Toes pointed forward, nice neutral spine, butt to calves, and they can sit there forever. They don’t need chairs at school. Desks are tall enough and the ground is perfect for sprawling out and getting work done. Yeah, this isn’t a gym class thing, but so what? It’s my post.

Instate a mix of free play and structured exercise, including:

MovNat. This is the prime time to teach kids to move naturally through the environment. Balance, climbing, crawling, jumping, all of it. Their joint mobility is unencumbered by years of sitting and sedentary living (because, well, they’ve only been alive for half a decade), so MovNat will come naturally (get it?). Erwan, you down for a career change?

Strength training once a week. A lot of bodyweight basics – pullups, pushups, squats, planks, overhead presses – plus some light weighted movements, like learning how to hip hinge to pick stuff up off the ground (deadlifts, basically, not for weight, but for the movement pattern). Most kids do this naturally, but that goes away pretty quick. This basic weekly refresher course would keep it. And no, strength training does not stunt growth.

Sprints once a week. Six or seven all-out sprints with a couple minutes of rest in between. Kids love to run and this is a great outlet for it.

Mile runs every week. If you can run a mile well, you’re in pretty good shape.

Field trips to the wilderness for long hikes. Maybe two or three times a month get kids outside for daylong hikes. Bring along the science teachers and make it educational! This would also be a great opportunity to teach MovNat fundamentals.

A fully outfitted jungle gym with the regular stuff – swings, ladders, multiple levels, slides – and not-so-regular stuff – rings, dip bars, horizontal bars, climbing ropes. Kids would learn how to climb, swing, and play on and around the equipment, maybe even with a gymnastics day every couple weeks, but there would also be free days. I’m thinking epic matches of hot lava monsters, personally.

Lots of free time, with the equipment and space (and some nudging if necessary) to do the following:

Dodgeball. It develops catching, dodging, throwing, spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination, agility, pain tolerance, with just enough healthy competition to teach you how to win and lose.

Tag. This will usually sprout up organically, but just in case it doesn’t, I’ll be “it” first.

Capture the flag. Teamwork, strategizing, sprints. The perfect fusion of brains and brawn. And, it’s super fun.

For high schoolers, I’d do much the same, with a few changes:

Push strength training to twice a week. Bodyweight exercises, employing all the essential movements, with the option to progress to weighted exercises if the student prefers. Just three or four compound exercises each session, two or three sets per. I doubt the school could stock enough barbells and weights for forty kids at once, so we’d have to use a lot of cheaper, more versatile equipment – sandbags, kettlbebells, medicine balls, slosh tubes. Imagine if everyone knew how to squat, deadlift, and press with perfect form that was ingrained at a young age?

Mobility work, daily, as a five to ten minute warmup. Teens are not quite as limber as kids, but far more mobile than most adults, so we can get ’em before they stiffen up. I’d draw from MobilityWOD‘s trove of movements.

More MovNat.

Wrestling. I remember doing a bit of this in grade school PE. I wasn’t very good (too small and there were no weight classes), but it was fun. I could definitely see wrestling as a great way to teach kids practical self-defense. And wrestling makes for an interesting, visceral anatomy lesson.

Lots of play. Of course, I’d promote Ultimate as the, well, ultimate fun game for teens. Lots of running, jumping, changing directions, throwing, catching, predicting flight paths, orchestrating plays and generally having a blast. A kid who can learn the basic skills of Ultimate can probably play any sport with competency later in life. I’ll admit that I’m having a hard time imagining cynical teens playing without a shred of irony, but maybe if those same teens came up in my mythical grade school PE curriculum, they’d be different. Who knows.

It’s not about burning calories. I’m not overly concerned with seven year olds failing to engage in high intensity interval training or deadlifting their own bodyweight. Kids simply need to move. At their age, they need to jump, leap, and flail their arms as often as possible. They need to twist out of the way of an incoming rubber ball or classmate’s outstretched hand. Bruises, grass stains, and scraped knees need to be part of the normal curriculum, and I want to see some of the more arcane versions of tag unearthed and field researched by our youngest scholars. It is during childhood that the innate human need to move must be encouraged, rather than stifled, because it will set the tone for the rest of that child’s life. Look, kids pop out of the womb wanting to move and touch and grab and experience. You know how babies are always looking wide-eyed and amazed at everything? That’s because they are. And once they figure out how to clamber onto their two feet, they’re off climbing, running, waddling, and yes, falling to explore this interesting new world. We gotta keep that going!

I think my “program” would work (if competent teacher/coaches were widely available and lawsuits were rare) and it would help get kids off on the right track toward a lifelong appreciation of movement. At the very least, it’d be better than whatever we have now.

What do you think? Readers, parents, teens? Is my vision for PE pure fantasy without any real chance? Are things really as dire as I’ve been led to believe? If you could change something about gym class, what would it be? Let me know in the comment section.

As you may know, next Tuesday – just six days away – marks the official release of my new book, The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation. It’s designed to walk you through, step-by-step, the first three weeks of going Primal, getting healthy, and taking control of the rest of your life. Since three weeks is a relatively short period of time, I worked hard for the better part of two years to iron out the details and make sure that it actually works. Well, it does, and I’m confident that this could be the bridge to break through to the mainstream. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m pretty excited. I’ll be releasing more details next week, but I’m gonna need your help. Are you with me?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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