The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fitness industry is booming. So why are P.E. classes disappearing?

Why a nation obsessed with working out refuses to invest in physical education for kids.

Michelle Obama exercised with children from Orr Elementary School in Washington in 2013. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Americans have never been more convinced that exercise is crucial to a long, fulfilling, healthy life. One study after another bears this out, and a booming $27 billion industry that not only weathered but grew throughout the Great Recession proves Americans are taking to heart the imperative to exercise.

Yet at the same time, physical education, the vehicle for the public provision of fitness to our youngest citizens, is underfunded and foundering. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans across party lines support children being more physically active, a far tinier fraction is willing to pay for it.

The Trump administration has perpetuated this trend, in part because youth fitness was a signature policy priority of the Obama years and in part because the president holds antiquated ideas about the dangers of exercise. But Trump did not cause the collapse in support for physical education. And fixing it requires political and pedagogical imagination that must transcend nostalgia for a “golden age” of physical education that never actually existed.

Today’s resistance to adequately fund physical education continues a tradition of scant state support as old as the programs themselves. Late 19th century programs all but overlooked half of the population, as those who advocated that physical culture include women contended with popular attitudes that girls were too frail for running, weightlifting or even vigorous calisthenics. As historian Martha Verbrugge has shown, Americans feared that building muscular strength and competitive spirit would “masculinize” girls in appearance and attitude. Nor were boys consistently guaranteed public physical education, even in the early 20th century when President Teddy Roosevelt championed “the strenuous life,” because compulsory school attendance was still a novelty.

Worries about the excesses and ill effects of industrialization soon shifted attitudes about the importance of exercise. Public initiatives like the 1919 “Keeping Fit” and “Youth and Life” poster series recommended moderate exercise for girls and boys alike; a complementary series that emphasized fitness for agricultural labor and the bodily discipline of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington targeted African Americans.

Institutionalizing such attention to the body in schools, however, was an uphill battle. In 1916, influential educational philosopher John Dewey pleaded with teachers “to develop the mind especially by exercise of the muscles of the body” and to dispense with the damaging idea that “bodily activity [is] an intruder … an evil to be contended with” that “leads the pupil away from the lesson with which his ‘mind’ ought to be occupied.”

A majority of states required some form of physical education by the 1920s, but the Depression scaled back many such efforts, settling into what historian Rachel Louise Moran calls an “advisory” — rather than coercive, which would require expensive infrastructure and power of enforcement — role in promoting the bodily health of its citizens.

Much of this early history escapes popular memory, even among those who romanticize the public commitment to fitness of the past. Many physical fitness boosters today invoke the programs funded during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations as a “golden age” of public physical education. Surely, the Presidential Council on Youth Fitness (PCYF), established in 1956 in response to the shocking revelation that nearly 60 percent of American children failed to meet basic fitness standards (compared to 8.7 percent of Europeans), did much to instill the idea that physical fitness was a key component of citizenship. And the physical education programs they funded and marketed with footage (which you can see in a recent, adoring documentary) are impressive: rows of muscular children and sinewy teenagers performing calisthenics, climbing ropes and walls, effortlessly touching their toes, usually in perfect sync.

Such programs were unprecedented, as were the ideas about the centrality of fitness to selfhood that undergirded them. But these initiatives were long on inspiring messaging and marketing and short on lasting infrastructure. Indeed, many such programs were cobbled together with the support of local districts, community organizations and celebrity spokespeople, not long-term federal investment.

This lack of enduring investment and scalability was not all that was amiss. Those who call for the revitalization of this so-called golden age overlook its inherently problematic approach to physical fitness. The PCYF programs were a national priority because they supported the agenda of the Cold War state, as opposed to the self-actualization of American schoolchildren. The students moved in sync so impressively, and their physical feats so exceeded what any P.E. curriculum would include today, because they were based on military drills.

The Cold War citizen, and potential soldiers, that the programs prepared were envisioned as male, athletically capable and white. The girls’ curriculum, rarely featured in PYCF publicity, was mostly an afterthought: The program’s anthem, “Chicken Fat (The Youth Fitness Song),” announces, “Alright, girls, you’re in this too!” in between encouragements to “the flabby guys” more likely to be slimmed into soldiers. The curriculum’s constant measurement and ranking reminded students exactly which bodies were most valuable to society.

As much as these programs were part of early Cold War mobilization, the 1980s witnessed a change in how to best prepare American children for the continued stalemate with the Soviet Union. In 1983, the federal A Nation at Risk report blasted public schools for failing to prepare American children academically in comparison to other nations. The report’s message to counteract the galling “rising tide of mediocrity” was a curricular return to “basics” like math, reading, science and foreign language.

The Reagan administration was no less concerned with cultivating the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths” of American schoolchildren than Eisenhower and Kennedy had been, but the means was no longer elaborate physical fitness programs, which were never mentioned in the widely circulated document. Combined with the era’s broader austerity policies that restricted social programs from housing to health care, physical education also faced continued cutbacks.

The relegation of physical education to an educational “frill” has intensified the disconnect between the cultivation of the body and the mind in American schools that Dewey called out a century ago. Today, as sports scholar Mark Edmundson points out, initiatives like “Plato in gym class” that marry intellectual and physical development are rarities on most campuses, where athletics are often understood as entirely separate from, or even at odds with, academic pursuits.

Physical education, intended as a noncompetitive class open to all students, exists apart from the competitive sports often at the center of such campus debates. But these attitudes inform curricular conversations that marginalize physical education even as the importance of regular exercise, and the booming private industry that provides it to those who can afford to participate, has exploded.

When I say I am writing a book about postwar fitness culture, there’s a reaction from people of a certain age I can now almost predict. They groan and ask me if I am going to write about the Presidential Fitness Test — an evaluation instrument used widely during the “golden age” of physical education classes in the 1960s — which they remember as so humiliating that they swore off organized exercise for years and, occasionally, forever. This, of course, is exactly the opposite outcome any physical education advocate would hope for, and it shows precisely how limited those programs were.

What we need is more than yearning for an imaginary, ideal past, or fear of a shameful, humiliating one. Charting a more vital, fit future for American children requires acknowledging how limited this nation’s commitment to physical education has always been and envisioning — and enacting — a more inclusive, inspiring path forward.