The role P.E. plays growing up

THIS. “Research suggests the gap between the amount of exercise girls and boys do widens during their time at school.  A study for the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation says more than half of girls are put off by PE classes.”

I don’t know that I can speak for my more athletically-inclined female friends, but this was absolutely me growing up. Jaded by always being the last to finish running the mile (usually around 15 minutes), constantly picked last in team sports, and humiliated by The President’s Challenge week, I generally dreaded gym class. It didn’t get any better by the time middle school rolled around; in fact, I’d say I was even more scarred by the experience then. All of a sudden I’m thrown into a school where the other half of the grade is comprised of people I’ve never met before, gym class is split by gender so I no longer have an excuse for being athletically inept, AND we have to wear uniforms and you expect me to change in front of these strangers?! This shy, flat-chested, athletically challenged only child says no thank you, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

I absolutely agree that P.E. class makes many girls shy away from bringing fitness into their lives once they’re out of school. But I also agree, despite everything I’ve said, that it’s an integral part of the curriculum, perhaps even through college. Given our rising obesity rates and backwards notions about health and fitness in this country, it’s important to stress how important staying active is. But how to do that effectively is a tough call. Clearly, being forced into it doesn’t always help, but what other choice do teachers and administrators have? I could say bring Zumba to schools, but frankly, I probably would have thought it was dumb at a young age and would have never continued with it now.

The only gym class I think I truly enjoyed was the one I took my junior year of high school. Much to my chagrin, we were required to take two semesters of gym on top of Freshman P.E. to graduate, and my only saving grace was that my high school offered a nice range of options. Of course, my sophomore year I took the only non-physical class offered – CPR certification. I dreaded choosing a class that surely involved more humiliation my junior year, but one stood out – Shape Up. These electives were co-ed but it just so happens that the class was entirely girls and taught by a woman teacher – and it helped that I had a few like-minded friends in the class. We all set goals, be it to lose a certain amount of weight or simply firm up, and we spent the semester achieving that goal. Every day was something different. We spent time in the weight room, we ran, we did pilates and yoga and crunches and step aerobics and cycling. It was a nice variety, and our teacher really pushed us and motivated us because she knew we were all apathetic about fitness. But it worked, and I credit that class for my love of yoga, if for no other reason than when we walked in and found out it was yoga day, we were all relieved because it was so easy compared to everything else.

If we take what I enjoyed about that class and compare it to what I enjoy about Zumba, there’s a considerable amount of overlap. It’s in a group setting with friends. The teacher has a vested interest in helping each person in the room exercise while still having fun. Every day is a little different, and you still look forward to some routines more, yet push through the others anyway. Whether or not you’re working towards a goal, you’re still motivated to come to class and have fun because it’s ultimately your choice. You have a say in your fitness fate.

Perhaps instead of splitting gym classes by homerooms and then gender, middle schools should split gym by gender and then interest. My middle school’s fine arts elective model would be a perfect example of how to execute this. In 6th grade, we spent half a semester each in music, art, tech ed, and home ec. Then in 7th and 8th grade, we got to choose between taking a language for two years or alternating fine arts classes by semester. My point here is that we got a small taste of each option, even those we knew we wouldn’t like, and then got the power to choose our own fates. This is so powerful and important at that age, because even the smallest liberties are a huge step towards independence. Why not take this model and apply it to gym class? Perhaps split classes by gender the first year, and do a little bit of everything – team sports, fitness classes, what have you. Then in 7th and 8th grade, give kids the choice. If they enjoy high intensity and/or team sports, great! Have at it. But I think it would be so much more of a confidence booster to let girls (and guys) choose something that interests them more if they want.

I’m lucky that my disposition is such that I can look back on gym class and laugh at my many (MANY) failed athletic attempts, but I’m also lucky to have thicker skin. I’m lucky I found talents in other areas, like English and Spanish and music, so that it didn’t hurt as much failing at sports. And it did hurt, being compared to other students publicly, knowing you’re not as good as them and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it’s more than cushioning egos or babying students. It’s about mirroring the rest of the journey through high school and college and beyond: recognizing your strengths and interests and capitalizing on them, rather than being forced to endure humiliation and being fed the notion that this is all fitness will be for the rest of your life. It’s about knowing that while you still have to bide by guidelines and curriculum, you still have wiggle room, because someday you’ll have complete control over what college classes you take and what jobs you want to apply for and what role fitness plays in your life. Discourage students from exercising when they’re young and what do you get? A society with attitudes towards health and fitness much like ours, I’d imagine.

There’s always mandatory curriculum up until a certain point. There’s standards, there’s national averages, there’s so much more than the student’s interests at stake in elementary and middle school. But gym class goes beyond that; it’s not just ensuring that our children are competent and well-learned enough to someday contribute to society. Once you get out of school, the only one responsible for keeping you active and healthy is YOU, and I believe it’s so important to let kids know that they have a hand in that fate. Keep them active, give them choices, show them they’re more than run times and national averages. Fitness is so individual and independent that if we don’t get kids excited about it now, there’s a good chance they never will be.

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Zumba Basic Training 1

As promised, here’s a recap of how my Basic Training class went! In short: it was WONDERFUL. I had so much fun and learned a ton! More