Gym class for a lifetime

It is accepted that regular physical activity is necessary for good mental and physical health, so I think phys ed should be a core school subject.

Gym Class for a lifetime by Nancy Knowlton

I loved gym class (or physical education) the whole way through school, from grade 1 through grade 11 (Quebec high school ends at grade 11). It was a mixed class with my male and female classmates in the gym and the classroom. We played all the big sports – easy for me as I played on my school’s teams. We did gymnastics, something that came a little harder to virtually everyone in my class. We also climbed ropes that hung from the ceiling of the gym, and that was particularly hard. We ran outside, we ran on the spot in the gym, we threw medicine balls, and we did push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks. We worked up a sweat and built endurance and muscles. I can remember feeling tired but great after gym class.

Not an enjoyable class

I know that many of my classmates didn’t enjoy very much of what gym class offered. They weren’t into team sports and showed little inclination to try to learn the intricacies of basketball or volleyball. For some, catching a basketball hurt and others never did master serving a volleyball. They weren’t into gym, and gym wasn’t into them based on their marks. But we all soldiered on with regular, intense gym class until we graduated from high school.

No longer working out

Then for many, physical exertion simply stopped. Some friends told me that they hated sweating and getting their hair messed up in the middle of the day. They didn’t like going to the gym or it wasn’t convenient to go to the gym. Some thought they looked bad in their workout clothes. Others were too busy and couldn’t fit working out into their day.

What’s clear is that gym class failed in its longer term ambition of creating healthy citizens with a lifetime focus on an active lifestyle. The physical pursuits of gym class were of little to no interest to many. Attaching a grade to them based on accomplishments added insult to injury and further dampened interest in anything physical. With hindsight, it is easy to see that virtually everything conspired against this positive outcome.

Making a fresh start

But that was then and this is now. Surely we know more about developing habits and recognize that not everyone is inclined to be a jock or super athlete. Surely with all of the literature pointing to the lifelong benefits of something as simple and inexpensive as just walking, we could get children to build that and other simple activities into their daily routine. Couldn’t we?

It turns out that children have to actually participate in physical education to get these benefits. With increasingly jam-packed curriculums, education systems have done the only seemingly right thing to do and have canceled phys ed. That’s right – they have ignored the research that indicates a tight connection between the brain’s ability to learn and physical activity and have canceled phys ed.

Where gym class remains on the calendar, it may be only once a week and still heavily slanted toward the team sports that do not inspire the majority of children. Where phys ed is an option, even more kids opt out because they don’t like the choices and don’t see any relevance to their interests.

Taking a different approach

More recently a small number of school jurisdictions have put all of the research data information together and created alternative gym classes targeting weight training, stretching, yoga and other activities that can be done over a lifetime. The seeds that they are planting involve participating and feeling good from the activity. It’s not competitive and the focus is not on acquiring a top grade.

Like many skills and attitudes, the earlier that one can embed an attitude or outlook, the longer that it is likely to become a lifelong habit. And that for me is one of the key reasons that regular phys ed needs to be on the agenda of every school virtually every day of the school week. We cannot exchange the mental for the physical or vice versa and think that all is well. A balance needs to be targeted and maintained for children to be healthy and therefore ready to learn.

Physical activity needs to be a lifelong mindset, embedded and encouraged from a young age. Teachers, parents and all adults need to be living examples of what an active, healthy lifestyle can deliver to impressionable young children. Gym class isn’t a typical class – it’s a lifetime pursuit and what each child makes it. It’s best to get started now.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.