Physical Education: The Band-Aid Slapped Over Childhood Obesity



Illinois is the only state in the US that requires physical education, daily, for all students K-12. This is in place to prevent childhood obesity. So why, then, does Illinois not have the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country? We stand at the higher end of the states, at 19.3% of children being obese according to the 2011 data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Compare this to the state with the lowest rate- Oregon, at 9.9%, and the highest rate- Mississippi, standing at 21.7%.
P.E. and recess are integral to a child’s learning, allowing children to let off steam and come back to the classroom ready to learn. Naperville’s Central High School’s success, acknowledged by big names like PBS, is proof of this. So what’s the problem? The answer is simple: it’s the way most schools look at physical education.
A Cornell University study of 37,000 high school students showed in 2006 that teens are only active in gym class for around 16 minutes. A study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in the UK showed that schoolgirls end up with a lifetime dislike for exercise because of their physical education. A study in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance showed that negative experiences during physical education had led to lifelong sedentary lifestyles.
As a child, I recall trying everything I could to not be involved in gym. I would watch as the more athletic kids ignored everyone else during team sports, and I had plenty of asthma attacks on the sidelines during the Fitnessgram Pacer Test before I could even get a letter grade on the test. I was never obese, but my gym class made me feel like it. The classes seemed tailor-made for young men who preferred running. On top of that, health classes were ‘one size fits all’; I did not find out until much later in my life, when I reconciled with fitness and began exercising daily on my own terms, that calories are not as simple as 2000 a day for women and 2500 a day for men; as small as I am, it was no wonder why I never lost weight.
The answer to all those who were failed by gym seems obvious enough: individualized exercise.
The reason why recess succeeds is because children can go at their own pace and do as they please. However, education is still important, and physical education has potential. It loses that potential when it focuses on the expectation that all children should be able to perform like an athlete. No child fails art class for not having the physical ability to draw; the point is to harness their abilities to help them improve and love art long after the class ends.
It’s time to take a similar approach to physical education.