By Ken Reed

For many school-aged kids, physical education (PE) class is the highlight of their school day. However, for many others, it’s the worst part of their day.

Usually, the kids that are more athletic love it and the less athletically-inclined kids hate it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And in this era of childhood obesity, it shouldn’t.

When it comes to keeping their bodies physically fit for a host of health, academic, and behavioral benefits, all kids are athletes.

What we need is a lot more PE classes that focus on cardiovascular fitness and wellness education in our schools. The goal should be educating and inspiring students to live active lifestyles for the rest of their lives, not using PE class as a way to scout for potential varsity athletes.

Jessica Olien recently wrote an excellent essay for Slate about her experience with PE as a kid. The memories for her aren’t pleasant. “As a kid, I wanted desperately to be good at sports,” wrote Olien.

“This was not because I enjoyed playing them. I did not. It was because I’d learned that physical education classes were key to my social survival. I knew my failure to make a basketball hit the backboard would have ramifications throughout the school year … Once each school year started, it would take less than a week to re-establish my utter failure in sports and my place as an object of ridicule to my peers. Every PE unit was a means for me to prove just how useless and uncooperative my body was … The culmination of each class was the annihilation of my self-confidence.”

What a sad, terrible experience. It’s certainly no way to inspire an active lifestyle.

“Calling the class ‘physical education’ was some sort of sick joke, ” continued Olien.

“The lesson I was learning about my physical body was that it was useless, inferior, and quite possibly infected with a cootie-like virus. We should have been learning about how complicated and capable our bodies were and how to make them healthier. Instead we were playing dodgeball … With the weeklong exception of archery in high school (my singular time to shine), this agony went on for 12 years.”

This isn’t just one disgruntled former student, the exception among an entire student body. A study conducted by Loughborough University in England revealed that physical education in school can be so traumatic that it turns females away from physical activity for the rest of their lives.

Physical education teachers in this country should be professional educators, not sport coaches killing time until varsity practice starts. I appreciate that there are indeed thousands of highly qualified professional physical educators in schools across the country. But I believe there are more PE teachers that became “gym” teachers so they could coach football, basketball, or baseball after school.

A quality physical education program is important to a quality education in general. There’s a growing mound of research showing that fit kids perform better academically, have fewer behavioral and emotional problems, and attend school more regularly. In fact, exercise has been shown to grow brain cells.

“Exercise is like Miracle-Gro for the brain,” says Dr. John Ratey, author of SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “It grows brain cells.”

Other researchers share Ratey’s enthusiasm for the positive impact exercise has on the brain. “It’s so exciting,” said Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore.

“There are actual new cells that are born in the memory parts of your brain [when you exercise]. Literally, new cells are born, this has been shown in animal studies. So exercise is the best thing for [the] brain, especially for the memory part of the brain. I think that we should start educating our children from age 5 that they really need to work on having a fit body because the best guarantee for having a sharp brain in your fifties, sixties and eighties is to have a strong body when you’re a kid.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a former multi-sport letterman in both high school and college. I love athletics. But athletics — and sport education — need to be extracurricular activities. Physical education should be about developing personalized fitness and wellness plans for every student. Grading should be based on effort in following one’s customized fitness plan, NOT on one’s athletic ability. In the relatively few schools across the country where PE is taught this way (Naperville (IL) School District #203 is a prime example), less athletically-inclined students begin to shine and actually look forward to going to PE class.

It’s time to take the “team sports” aspect out of physical education and make physical education truly about educating students about the short and long-term benefits of exercise and fitness. Phil Lawler, the founder of Naperville’s award-winning physical education program and one of the architects of PE4life, summarized it beautifully.

“It’s about enabling each student to maintain a physically-active lifestyle forever,” according to Lawler. “It means emphasizing fitness and well-being, not athleticism. It eliminates practices that humiliate students. And it assesses students on their progress in reaching personal physical activity and fitness goals. A quality PE program exposes kids to the fun and long-term benefits of movement – it’s really that simple.”

As a nation, when it comes to physical education, that’s the model we need to follow.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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