6 reasons why kids need physical education in their school day

Let’s play, “Imagine This”…

You’re sitting in a room with twenty other people, reading through the history of a place you’ve never been (and don’t really care about), with the express purpose of memorizing a timeline of when one group of people tried to kill another group of people. The air is stagnant and stale, you’re bored out of your mind, and you’re antsy with energy because you haven’t done much more than walk down a hallway for a couple steps for the last three hours. Sometimes instead of memorizing facts, you’re listening to someone else read them off to you, which isn’t much better, because your mind and body are too pent up to pay attention. In an hour or so, you’ve learned basically nothing. Now rinse and repeat that another three times before you get to go home.

That? That was pretty much my middle and high school experience in a nutshell. Sounds pretty damn terrible, right? While this might not be a 100% accurate-to-life retelling for every kid in the American educational system, it’s one that I’ve pulled from my own memories to share with you. And I didn’t go to a bad school!

The public high school I attended was one of the best in the state at the time, by most standard measures, but there were some serious things lacking. For instance, I had no gym requirement in 11th or 12th grade, and only spent an hour in a PE class three times per week before that. Most of those hours we weren’t even moving! My health class was okay, but spent almost no time on really teaching good health habits, especially nutrition. Other than, “food has calories and you need about 2000 of them each day and don’t eat too much fat” my high school nutrition can be summed up as “Food Pyramid”.

As an obese kid, I needed these things in my school day, but I didn’t have them. Hell, I didn’t even know I needed them until sometime in college when I started caring more about my body enough to research it. As a kid who suffered for lack of good fitness and health education and opportunity in school, here’re my top six reasons why kids today need it.

1. They don’t know what they don’t know.

The reason we start kids early on their education is because there is so much to learn about life, the universe, and everything (other than “42”). Every subject has so many levels of learning that we need the time we’re given to even start getting a grasp on most of it. In math, you need to learn what a number is before you can add two of them together, and in English you need to know your letters before you can spell anything.

Fitness and health are often treated as though they’re a simple subject that doesn’t take any real effort to learn. The truth is, they’re just as varied and deep of subjects as physics or literature. When you don’t even know the basics of eating well, how are you supposed to diagnose dietary issues you might be facing? If you’re having pain in your lower back, do you know enough about posture and movement to help yourself correct it? The majority of people cannot answer those questions, because they don’t know what they don’t know!

2. Most parents don’t know either!

And unfortunately, most parents today grew up and were schooled in the same way. They weren’t given a good grounding in the fitness subjects, so they can’t help their kids with it either. As responsible adults and caretakers we do our best to figure it out, but most people rely on current media to tell them what they need to know. The news, magazines, and celebrities are being trusted to give us good information…but most of the time they’re not.

My mother, for instance, was told by my pediatrician that I was significantly overweight (which is the kindest way he could have told her I was developing my own orbit; I was a fatty). His advice was to help me lose weight, and she being the responsible adult took to trying to help. At the time, the low-fat diet was what everyone was being told would help us lose weight. So, she bought low fat snacks (crammed with sugar) and pastas and whatever else the mainstream media told her was “good” for us. It did’t work, and in fact I’m pretty sure it made it worse. Is this her fault? No, and I don’t blame her. She wasn’t taught this stuff any more than I was, and what she was being told was – pardon the term – total horseshit.

The educational system should be constantly trying to educate everyone, which includes parents.

3. Moving primes the mind to learn.

Getting away from what we’ve learned as the standard, the fact is that moving is good for you. A physical education program that includes daily movement helps prime the mind to learn new information. Kids who move more, do better in school in all subjects, without fail, barring any extraneous circumstances. A study published in 2013 looked at groups of 9- and 10-year-olds of differing fitness levels. They were tested on memory and retention tasks, only to find that the more aerobically fit kids did better on difficult memory tasks than the less fit kids. An interesting note on this: they also tested the Body Mass Index (BMI) of the kids, which is based on height/weight compared to statiscal averages, and found no correlation between BMI and memory performance. It wasn’t the size of the kids that mattered, it was how fit they were.

At La Sierra High School in the 1960’s they found the same thing in practice with high school students. Their physical education program was…intense. Not because it was super hard, but because it expected each student to perform at their highest level, treated them as such, and ranked them with their community. Far from being a detriment, they found that this kind of challenge actually pushed the kids towards being better athletically and academically. The kids participating in the morning PE sessions routinely made better academic progress than those who didn’t. This was seen with thousands of high schoolers over years of implementation…before the programs died out around the country in the 1970’s.

4. Active kids, make active teens, make active adults who live longer, happier lives.

The great thing about kids is that they can learn something, take it to heart, and make it a life-long habit that they carry well into adulthood.

Also…the dangerous thing about kids is that they can learn something, take it to heart, and make it a life-long habit that they carry well into adulthood.

It’s great when they’re building good habits like exercise and eating right. It’s dangerous when those are bad habits like sedentary lifestyles or smoking. What we know is that statistically, more active kids who are encouraged – and enabled! – to maintain higher fitness standards tend to be healthier teens and adults. The reverse is also true. The CDC also tells us that, on average, more fit adults live longer, happier lives than those who are overweight, out of shape, and in poor health.

So, want your kid to be happy and live as long as possible? Get them moving everyday!

5. It teaches discipline that carries over into the rest of their lives

Maintaining bad health is really easy. Eat whatever you want, move when you feel like it (and don’t when you don’t), be lazy whenever it suits you, etc. Being unhealthy is the easiest thing you can do with the human body other than killing it. Seem a little extreme? Maybe, but it doesn’t make it less true.

Maintaining a healthy, fit lifestyle is the polar opposite. You need to be aware of what you’re eating. Listen to your body sending signals, interpret those signals, and change behaviors according to what you need, which will not always be what you want. You have to routinely practice long-term thinking rather than giving in to short-term temptations, which means you have to have the discipline to do so. For some people this comes easily, for others (like me, actually) it’s incredibly difficult to maintain that lifestyle over time. It gets easier with practice, but that doesn’t mean that it’s actually easy. When you teach kids about this disciplined approach early on, they have a chance to make it a fundamental part of their personality, so later in life when they have to make daily choices about what’s good for them overall, and what their lizard-brain wants right-this-damn-second they can make the better choice.

6. It’s just plain ol’ fun!

It is fun to move. To run. To climb. To feel the blood pumping and your body exerting itself under strain. There are few things as great as getting that endorphin rush during an obstacle course race, or feeling the raw power of your body when you lift twice your own body weight. The thrill of challenge coupled with the satisfaction of completing something so viscerally physical is unmatched by any human experience. I like pizza, but I love being able to run up a 10-ft wall and get to the top just because it’s there.

When we’re kids, we can do so many things that adults forget. Kids can squat with perfect form for an hour at a time. Kids can climb and pull themselves up trees with what seems like no effort. Kids can move and bend in ways most parents still wish they could. So, why can’t you? Why aren’t you moving more, exercising more, becoming stronger and more awesome every day?

It’s not for lack of wanting it. And it’s not time constraints either; if you have time to be on Facebook then you have time for exercise! It’s not even availability of training; you can find entirely free forums and meetup groups where people talk about nothing but the kind of training you want to do.

It’s because you were taught away from fitness, and into unhealthy habits. We are pushed away from being active, happy, healthy people and told that we should only focus on math, reading, science, etc. Those are important, but so is living a life healthy enough to use those other subjects in a way that matters.

So, lets start letting kids have fun. We’ll tell them later they were getting fit, becoming stronger people, and developing good habits for when they’re in their 50’s and really need them.


Resources used for this article include:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23465408

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/105/5/1156

http://www.shapeamerica.org/advocacy/son/2016/upload/Shape-of-the-Nation-2016_web.pdf