The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement.

Could smart coaches and Internet giants revive our youth with vigorous, addictive exercises?

An empty school gymnasium. (iStock)
5 min

I didn’t like daily high school physical education classes. I was a poor athlete. I made the tennis team but lost every match against opponents from other schools. I would have preferred anything to P.E. exercises.

Many classmates shared my view. But I didn’t realize until lately that our anti-P.E. bias has come to rule our education system.

In her delightful new book “You Are Your Own Best Teacher!: Sparking the Curiosity, Imagination, and Intellect of Tweens,” social scientist Claire Nader offers startling statistics. Decades ago, daily P.E. was the norm. These days, she said, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 7 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools have daily P.E. the entire school year. Twenty-two percent of schools have no P.E. at all.

What happened? As a nation, we have never been that keen on exercise. Late 19th-century P.E. programs, for instance, excluded girls for fear more muscles and competitive urges would masculinize them. Daily P.E. for both sexes became common by the middle of the 20th century, but the bipartisan push to raise academic achievement allowed school districts to reduce or eliminate gym classes, and save money by hiring fewer P.E. teachers.

“When money gets tight, P.E. is one of the first to go,” said Terri Drain, past president of SHAPE America, which supports professionals in P.E., health, recreation and dance. The organization provides guidance and research and leads lobbying on health issues in Congress.

By 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported only 36 percent of children were doing the recommended one hour of physical activity a day and 30 percent participated in a sport on a regular basis.

Ken Reed, policy director of the sports reform project League of Fans, noted “Type 2 diabetes was once considered an adult disease. However, because more kids are overweight and obese, the incidence of the disease has increased dramatically in children and adolescents.”

Studies have also found a positive correlation between physical activity and both mental health and academic achievement. “A 20-minute jog around the school building would do more to improve test scores than 20 extra minutes of cramming for the test,” Reed said.

Why a little bit of exercise can help academically for kids with ADHD

Some studies also indicate that the way we have been doing P.E. can have negative consequences, such as an increase in teasing when kids are forced to use locker rooms.

I am not sure how we fix this. It requires tough love, rarely encouraged these days. When I told my high school’s cross-country coach I was quitting the team because all that running was boring, he said he wouldn’t permit it. That wouldn’t work in today’s schools. Even then, a teacher’s pet like me could have gotten the decision overturned. But I didn’t want to cross that formidable coach, the nationally known Connie Smith. I stuck it out and got an unexpected taste of glory.

After cross-country season, I went back to regular P.E. It devoted a week to long-distance running, ending with a two-mile race up and down our hillside campus. To my astonishment, those cross-country team laps gave me so much endurance that I won. It was the only first-place finish of my life and my only A ever in P.E.

How sports can help high schools

Schools are still focused on academic gains. Few are likely to allot more class time for exercise. After-school sports seem the only hope. My children were on high school and after-school teams. My grandsons will likely do the same. It looks good on college applications. But what about the 70 percent of high-schoolers who don’t participate?

In her book, Nader has many suggestions for what 9- to 12-year-olds can do on their own to improve their educations. On the P.E. issue, she urges them to gather their friends and lobby teachers and principals. “You start by saying that your mission is to save lives, to improve health, to stimulate educational brain activity,” she said, “and to increase the likelihood that P.E. for kids now will lead them to play more participatory sports later as adults.” Letters to school officials and the media can also work, she said.

I think it will take more than that to inspire a national movement for more physical activity, particularly among children. But there are ways. I am now doing vigorous hikes four days a week, carrying a 12-pound bag, because I have become addicted to hitting small yellow balls into round holes. The lady I married 55 years ago gets her exercise walking with me and pointing out which bushes my shots landed in.

Can such obsessions be implanted in the young? Tech geniuses, such as the one who owns my newspaper, have found ways to interest people in all kinds of new daily habits. Can they invent something that makes moving around irresistible? Our grandchildren are already in their grip, so I have hope.

Whatever those entrepreneurs do will have to be subtle and cunning, like the Fitbit craze. My high school coach somehow got me to stick with running. Clever people like him could brainstorm attractive activities that have the effect we hoped P.E. would have. But they will need to find a better name for it.