Gym Class Chronicles

High school gym class. It’s the stuff of comic nostalgia and adolescent nightmares. (Anybody watch The Wonder Years?) The gym teacher personalities, the locker room air, the laps, the team picking, the annoying whistle. Maybe you were one of the jocks, automatic buddy of the instructor, who got away with doing very little because it was your season and you already worked hard. Or maybe you were among those who just tried to stay under the radar and do just enough so gym wouldn’t ruin your gradepoint. Or perhaps you were truly an earnest participant, athlete or not, who found gym a refreshing break from textbook lectures and worksheets.

Whatever our respective roles in high school gym, it was somehow a universal, albeit at times absurd, bonding experience. (Of course, everything seems absurd to a 15-year-old.) We all had to do the drills, and it got us up and off our duffs for a while if nothing else. If we were lucky, we got a gym teacher who was kind of nice and didn’t yell at us too much. Once in a while, it was kind of fun.

But what’s the deal these days with more high schools dropping gym as a requirement? According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, “little more than half of students nationwide are enrolled in a physical education class, and by high school only a third take gym class daily.”

The following video out of Canada (the neighbors to the north are having problems as well), while it isn’t particularly flashy or clever, highlights the increasing educational trend in making gym optional, particularly at the high school level. While a few of our adolescent selves might be jealous as all heck, in the back of our minds we know something isn’t right about this trend.

via YouTube via Healthy Living Niagara

And it gets worse. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 30% of states don’t mandate physical education for elementary and middle school students. Mississippi, ranked the fattest state in the nation, is only now trying to reverse the policy of “optional” gym in its districts, including for grades K-8!

As much as we might joke about our gym class experiences, don’t we agree that they were important? In a time when childhood obesity is at an all time high, can’t we find a way to make sure kids get some activity? It kinda seems like an important lesson to teach.

We agree that gym classes need some work. And we acknowledge that it’s not easy trying to keep 25 children or adolescents in line and vaguely amused enough that they stay out of trouble. But what can a good, affordable physical education program look like? And why do so many states say they can’t make it happen?

And what will come of this hole in the curriculum that won’t allow students enough exploration to find physical activities and outlets that they can enjoy into adulthood? Why can’t we give more than lip service to kids’ health?

Send us your thoughts, answers, arguments and questions.

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19 thoughts on “Gym Class Chronicles”

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  1. Funny where the priorities are…you have to be smart in every subject ever known…but healthy? Nah. If someone can tell me when “diagraming sentences” will actually be of use or save my life….I will take it all back.

  2. I’m actually glad that gym class as I knew it is dying a slow, painful death. If it ever comes back I hope somebody clues in to the idea that 45 solid minutes of humiliation every day never got anyone off their ass! The focus needs to be on helping kids find a physical activity that they’re good at and actually enjoy, instead of on forcing the unathletic kids to compete with the jocks in team sports year-round and never allowing them to ever get the impression that they’re good at something. Any motivation I have today to get in some physical activity is directly in SPITE of my P.E. experiences.

    And don’t knock sentence diagrams. I think they’re fun! (but that’s the sport-hating linguist in me :P)

  3. “As much as we might joke about our gym class experiences, don’t we agree that they were important?” No, actually, I disagree vehemently. Am I the only one? Gym class, at least as it was conducted in the 70s and 80s when I was in school, was unmitigated torture with no real benefit. I was a really skinny kid then (what I would now call skinny-fat), had poor physical coordination, couldn’t run very fast, and wasn’t very strong. Gym class did nothing to change that; it just made me more self-conscious about being weak, slow, and poorly coordinated; it also made me sore, debilitatingly sore. It reminds me a lot of the low-fat diet dogma, actually – a big fat lie about how if you engage in a certain behavior, you will get better, despite all the evidence to the contrary that it doesn’t actually work. Or, as I said above, unmitigated torture with no real benefit.

    I see two really big problems with gym class. First, with 20 kids and one instructor (our ratio, it could be different in other schools, but I bet it seldom skews towards fewer kids per teacher), there’s no time for individual attention. Every gym instructor I had lined us up and told us to do 20 floor pushups or 40 situps. I could not do even 5 floor pushups to save my life; I now know I needed to start out with bar pushups, but where’s the time or money to give a kid the individual attention that says, “Here’s what you need”? And I could usually pull off 40 situps, but I’d be sore for three or four days afterward, so sore that it hurt to laugh. And don’t get me started on the humiliation; on the rare occasions when I did have a gym instructor modify an activity for me, it was in front of the watchful, taunting eye of 20 other kids. To this day I prefer to exercise in private.

    Second, once a week just isn’t enough. The reason those forty situps never got easier is that I only did them once a week, in gym class. On the surface, this one could be easy to fix – just have gym more often. But with all the stuff schools are now expected to teach kids in addition to academics – sex education and balancing a checkbook and health education, stuff that we used to rely on parents to teach – who can honestly say there’s time or money for gym 3 or 4 days a week?

    I’m not saying I know the answer, but let me pose the question: If phys ed as usually practiced doesn’t do any good, what does that mean? I’ve heard so much crap from the low-fat people about how failure to lose weight on a low-fat diet means “you just aren’t doing it right,” that I’m automatically skeptical of any claims that the failure of a system is due to not doing it well enough, frequently enough, or intensely enough. Maybe the real problem is that the system doesn’t work. Maybe we need an actual, real study to measure whether physical performance improves in kids who have to take gym classes. Otherwise, why waste money on them?

  4. forget gym classes…just give more recess. As we used to run around and throw tennis balls at eachother for fun…nothing motivates one to move than a solid object coming at them quickly. Then again we didn’t have ipods, cell phones or all the other stuff kids use to kill time with now.

  5. Gym classes have changed since our time in school. Our former and present gym teachers are outstanding. They teach a variety of skills and physical activities, have students set personal goals, and acknowledge improvements in measures of physical ability.

    With the high stakes testing of No Child Left Behind, it’s no surprise that schools allot little time for physical education. There is abundant research demonstrating a positive correlation between daily physical activity and academic achievement. The interconnection between the brain and the body is explained in the book Teaching With the Brain in Mind and in the works of cooperate learning guru Dr. Spencer Kagan.

    Now more than ever we need daily PE in schools. So many of our children have no safe space to play after school and on weekends, and there are so many more electronic distractions besides TV. Structured, supervised play gets kids moving and keeps kids safe.

  6. Like Migraineur, I had dreadful experiences in gym class. I was a slow runner, uncoordinated, and shy. The instructors didn’t do much to help me get better, and it was pretty much an exercise in getting picked last for teams and feeling terrible. Also, they’d come up with all sorts of dreadful game ideas (like tennis ball dodgeball – those things HURT!).

    I think physical activity is important but I vote for either outdoor play time like recess or giving kids choices in gym class so that they might actually find something they enjoy.

    Food Is Love

  7. I could not stand P.E. when I was in school. I’m all for having health in schools, and I do agree that exercise is very important, but I have to side with Chicken Girl & Migraineur on this one. There is a better way to go about it then how public schools have gone about it for many years. Suiting up in P.E. clothes and seeing jocks make fun of super thin or overweight kids was not my idea of beneficial exercise.

  8. as a high school student, i do gym is a class that everyone should take, but it’s just not possible. with colleges getting more and more selective and testing being stressed, there is no room in schedules for a gym class. colleges look down on transcripts that have gym classes instead of extra ap’s or honors courses. if you don’t pass the standardized tests, they take away even more of your open classes. there is just no way to fit it in unless you change the entire school system.

  9. Ok so I was recently hired to run a youth fitness program at a local high-end gym. The first session we had 3 girls. One who was in 6 th grade said she hadnt had gym in school until the current year! And of the 3 kids, none were able to hold a plank for 10sec!! Horrid.

    Sad but true, the program was dropped since there was a lack of interest from the community!!

  10. My kids elementary school has a great physical education teacher. There is alway a “jump rope for heart” or other type activity that they are doing. The also have Girls on the Run program at the school. Because of the PC crowd PE has had to change the way they do things and for my kid there is no opt out.

  11. fellow gym-detester here as well…Im WHOLLY uncoordinated.

    I love that the district in which I live has *way* expanded the definition of gymclass (to after school karate no less!) but you have to do SOMETHING.


  12. Of course, my son’s gym program emphasis is on running, for the “cardiovascular” benefit (probably also because it requires no equipment to purchase, store, or move around – there is no “gym” room but being in So Cal that isn’t much of a problem. I would much rather they spent gym time doing strength building and coordination exercises, than pounding their joints. My third grader son’s gym teacher is also giving terrible dietary advice. My son comes home asking why I serve butter, whole milk, red meat (grass fed), not very much bread/grains, etc. because his gym teacher says something entirely different. Argh!

  13. think physical activity is important but I vote for either outdoor play time like recess or giving kids choices in gym class so that they might actually find something they enjoy.

    Limited choices in gym class, yes. More recess, no. The problem with recess is that the least fit kids tend to move the least. They’ll run around the first five minutes, get pooped, and sit around for the rest of recess. Some structure and supervision keeps the kids active. Besides a great PE program, my school also sponsors before and after school PE activities that are very well attended by our students. It’s voluntary, and the students have choices.

    My third grader son’s gym teacher is also giving terrible dietary advice. My son comes home asking why I serve butter, whole milk, red meat (grass fed), not very much bread/grains, etc. because his gym teacher says something entirely different. Argh!

    I’m so glad I do not teach nutrition because I would have serious ethical problems promoting the official USDA pyramid with grains on the bottom and milk as a daily staple.

  14. The problem w. PE is the same problem w. modern life: we should have physical activity built in to our daily lives rather than having to do a “separate” activity for fitness. But, since most of us aren’t going back to chopping wood or churning butter any time soon, I guess there should be some good PE programs…hope they’re better than what I had though.

  15. When I was in high school, our district was experimenting with block scheduling–instead of 45-minute class sessions, they were twice that length. I had a phys ed class every year until I was a junior, and those last two years were hell . . . not just because it was degrading and embarrassing, but because it was *interminable*.

    Often the instructors only chose one activity for the entire period, and it was almost always dodge ball (ouch) or “mat ball”. Think kick ball but (if this is conceivable) even less fun. Instead of running the bases and ending at home base, you continued running until there were three outs. The bases were huge mats and there would be about ten people on them at a time. It was so easy to get an out by throwing the ball into a group of people that the most exercise anyone really got was moving from kicking to playing outfield, and vice versa.

    I hated it and still, perhaps irrationally, despise team sports–I can barely stay awake to watch them, much less play them. But I love lifting weights, something we did only once (untaught and unsupervised) in phys ed.

    I guess all that happened in 1997 and 1998. It was such a joke and set me against physical activity for a long, long time. But surprise, it can be pleasant.

  16. I also side with Chicken Girl, Migraineur, and Jerry on this point. Looking back to my elementary/junior high/high school years (just 4 years ago!) I have to say that P.E. was by far the worst part of school. I remember dreading the days I had class since it was likely I would either get hit with a ball, get picked last, or just be uncoordinated and laughed at. Throughout these years I hated any sort of physical activity just because I thought I was horrible at it. However, in high school, my school district formed a crew team and I finally found something that I was good at. This led to long-distance running and triathlons, and now I can say I am an athlete.

    I think what schools need to do is find physical activities that kids are willing to participate in, even if this just means giving more recess. The standard football or kickball isn’t going to do much of a difference for the overweight or uncoordinated kids regardless if P.E. is required again.

  17. Gym class, for me, not that long ago, was far and away my favorite class. I had the opportunity to opt out of gym because of sports, but I never did. It also helped that my school (public, might I add) held six sections of gym per school year. Two sections for each season with the opportunity to pick your choice between things like, soccer, fitness, yoga, floor hockey, badminton and the like. It worked at our school and still works (my younger brother is a freshman). Why other schools don’t model after this I won’t ever understand. I figure it’s a money issue, but then again, I’m obviously not the brightest buld

  18. Who ever is saying they don’t like gym because, it makes you sore or tired geeze your just plain lazy. That is the whole point of exersise, to make your body push itself to make you a stronger and better person. Gym teaches healthy habbits and life skills I don’t think there are anymore classes that will provide you with that knowledge. And how hard is it to do 40 stomach crunches I mean c’mon most schools don’t even do that many. Lets face it our society is getting has been obease and people complain about it but, if you cut out gym class there will be more people who wont discover sports they like and many people wont even have any exersise at all if there is no gym class. I don’t like math class but, you know what I still do it.