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The Importance of Physical Education

High-quality health and physical education programs help students succeed in life.

By Charlotte Kelso

At the moment, it looks like we’re losing the fight against inactivity and obesity in our young people. We are raising the most sedentary and unhealthy generation in American history: Its members may have the dubious distinction of being the first generation not to outlive their parents.

Meaningful, high-quality health and physical education is one of the best strategies we have to reverse this trend. And, not only does good HPE increase the chances that our young people will live healthier, more productive lifespans, it pays off in the classroom, as well.

Let’s look at some of the reasons we’re in our current physical condition, and how and why we can start changing attitudes, in both the younger and older populations, about healthy living and exercise.

Clearly, we have a problem with childhood obesity in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  over the past three decades the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children (ages 2-5) and adolescents (ages 12-19), and it has more than tripled for children ages 6-11. Our young people are spending way too many hours in front of computer and television screens and way too few hours engaged in heart-pumping physical activity. I call electronic devices such as the Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, etc., the “toys of obesity.” Further complicating matters are programs such as No Child Left Behind and our current statewide budget problems, which often lead policymakers to consider cutting certain programs not seen as “essential,” including the arts and HPE.

Our dietary choices aren’t helping, either. The parents of today are the second generation of families raised in a fast-food culture. Many families find that the convenience of fast food, coupled with the opportunity not to make a mess at home, is the quick and easy way to satisfy hunger. However, as we all know, most fast food falls short in providing the healthy nutrition that children need. And the high fat and sugar contents are helping contribute to growing rates of heart disease and diabetes in young people.

As we ingest fast food, junk food and other menu items of questionable nutritious value, we don’t burn the calories the way our predecessors did. We’ve become a push-button, quick-fix, take-a-pill kind of society. We all have cars and drive them constantly, even if we’re just going around the corner to the store. Instead of walking to the house or office next door to visit, or meeting in the park for a walk, we’re on cell phones, sending e-mails, or hanging out on social media sites. Our jobs have us sitting at desks most of every day.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t be, either.

Quality health and physical education programs can be life-changing for today’s young people and, in many cases, already are. Such programs offer students a well-rounded opportunity to develop their bodies and minds to gain skills that will propel them to success in both the physical and academic aspects of education—and life. Good HPE programs provide the structure and discipline that young people need to perform in school effectively, make positive choices in their lives, persevere to see a project through to the end, and earn the respect of their peers. Our society seems to be struggling with these things.

Here’s just one example of how physical education can cross academic lines: I teach in Arlington and several years ago, a series of sniper shootings hit the Washington, D.C. area. Schools were temporarily locked down—no students outside for HPE, recess or any reason. Before long, the classroom teachers at my school saw a significant change in the learning capacity of their students: The youngsters could not sit still or stay focused on academics. The classroom teachers approached the HPE teachers and asked for some in-class activities they could use to release students’ pent-up energy and keep them on task. We gladly assisted and asked for their support the next time HPE or other electives were about to be cut. They happily agreed.

The atmosphere of the remainder of the lockdown seemed to calm. Students were more focused and teachers thanked the HPE staff for the suggestions. Throughout the school year, in my class I use cross-curricular activities that bring math, vocabulary and social studies to show a connection to other core courses.

The Goals of HPE

A quality HPE program should offer challenging yet achievable goals and include all students in each activity session. Elementary students should build basic skills, such as skipping and hopping, and work up to developing sport skills. Middle school HPE should continue to build physical skills while teaching students how to apply sports skills and basic sports strategies. High school HPE should review skills and begin to focus more on team-building and more in-depth sport strategy, along with coaching and officiating sport.

All HPE programs should also include cross-curricular activities so that students who think that math is not applicable in HPE can see how a football field is measured and how the trajectory of a soccer kick or basketball free throw has math and physics elements. Vocabulary and history of the sport activities should be a small part and, most important, all activities should be fun and rewarding for all participants.

The psychological benefits of exercise are just as important as the physical ones. Not to be overlooked are the positive effects of physical activity on self-image and self-confidence, and on promoting general feelings of health and wellness. Movement develops brain cells and stimulates the production of endorphins, body chemicals that help create feelings of happiness and calmness as well as ease stress and pain. A good workout can leave students feeling better about life and about themselves. An inactive student will feel lethargic and understimulated.

Not Your Mother’s HPE

Traditional “gym” classes used to be all about calisthenics and sports competition. The sport emphasized was usually one in the teacher’s comfort zone, and it would often be introduced with a demonstration by a student the teacher had coached or knew from the community. After that brief intro, students were often allowed to play freely, without much focus on skill practice or rules.

Later, gym classes began to shift to an emphasis on physical fitness, as fewer students came from families where agriculture or manual labor were a way of life. In the 1980s, group activities became the focus. In the 1990s, HPE moved into a more intramural-like curriculum, largely because soccer had become very popular and all age groups were playing it.

Today, we are all about motion. We’re getting students up off the couch and emphasizing lifelong fitness activities, such as walking and dancing. The “lifelong” part of this approach is the key: I want my students to leave my HPE classes having had structured fun and having learned enough about themselves physically to go on to have full, healthy lives. I want them to be able to make positive lifestyle choices that will give them the opportunity to enjoy being active well into old age. Physical fitness is a discipline; students must choose their own path. But I want to equip them with the experiences and information that will help them make wise choices. I want them to feel empowered to believe that they can make a difference, and that contributing to the community and helping others makes the world a better place. Finally, I want my students to take away from my instruction the love of activity and develop the discipline to live a healthy and long life.

One very serious obstacle to accomplishing all this is the competition health and fitness activities face in the lives of young people. Getting youngsters to move away from a shoot-‘em-up video game in favor of riding a bicycle or shooting a basketball is a challenge. Seeing active adults engaged in these kinds of activities would sure help. Sedentary kids need good fitness role models. Once young people are exposed to fun and successful activities, their health improves, health care costs go down, and they live longer.

HPE programs, while often overlooked and sometimes shunted aside during times of economic difficulty, actually hold an important key to life and school success for students of all ages. We all need for such programs to remain a priority in our public schools.

Kelso, a member of the Arlington Education Association, is a National Board Certified Teacher and teaches health and physical education at Swanson Middle School.

Box: Why Children Need Physical Education

Physical education is an integral part of the total education of every child in kindergarten through high school. Quality physical education programs are needed to increase the physical competence, health-related fitness, self-responsibility and enjoyment of physical activity for all students so that they can be physically active for a lifetime. Physical education programs can only provide these benefits if they are well-planned and well-implemented. Here’s what quality physical education programs can do for students, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education:

Improved physical fitness
Improves children's muscular strength, flexibility, muscular endurance, body composition and cardiovascular endurance.

Skill development
Develops motor skills, which allow for safe, successful and satisfying participation in physical activities.

Regular, healthful physical activity
Provides a wide-range of developmentally appropriate activities for all children.

Support of other subject areas
Reinforces knowledge learned across the curriculum.
Serves as a lab for application of content in science, math and social studies.

Facilitates development of student responsibility for health and fitness.

Improved judgment
Quality physical education can influence moral development. Students have the opportunity to assume leadership, cooperate with others, question actions and regulations, and accept responsibility for their own behavior.

Stress reduction
Physical activity becomes an outlet for releasing tension and anxiety, and facilitates emotional stability and resilience.

Strengthened peer relationships
Physical education can be a major force in helping children socialize with others successfully and provides opportunities to learn positive people skills. Especially during late childhood and adolescence, being able to participate in dances, games and sports is an important part of peer culture.

Improved self-confidence and self-esteem
Physical education instills a stronger sense of self-worth in children based on their mastery of skills and concepts in physical activity. They can become more confident, assertive, independent and self-controlled.

Experience setting goals
Gives children the opportunity to set and strive for personal, achievable goals.


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