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  • Writer's pictureSimone Ellin

Why Gym Class Desperately Needs an Update

Recently, I came across an article in the Atlantic that deeply resonated with me. It was called "Gym Class Is So Bad That Kids Are Skipping School to Avoid It," and it was written by Alia Wong. The article states that one of the main reason why many kids hate gym is because so much bullying takes place in phys. ed. classes and school locker rooms. That was certainly my experience. Not only was I one of the last chosen for teams -- one of the most humiliating experiences that any kid can experience -- but I was regularly criticized by classmates and teachers for my seeming inability to catch or throw a ball and failure to make a goal. Being forced to change in the locker room was another trauma. Like many other tweens and teens, I was ashamed of my developing body and dreaded having to undress in front of other girls. I was also ashamed of being ashamed. The whole scenario was a nightmare.

By high school, I wised up. I spoke to my gym teacher about doing an "independent study" in running. To my surprise, she agreed. It was a tremendous relief.

Years later, I discovered that I wasn't as uncoordinated as I thought. My problems in gym class actually stemmed from anxiety. I was so anxious about being chosen last, or dropping the ball in whatever sport, that I couldn't perform to the best of my abilities. Unfortunately, I stayed away from all manner of team sports, when I could have been enjoying them.

One of the most astonishing parts of Wong's article is when she references a paper that looked at the results of a $37 million fitness initiative in Texas called the Texas Fitness Now program. Researchers found that the program, which required middle school students to attend gym every day in an effort to improve their physical fitness, academic performance and behavior, "didn’t have any positive impact on kids’ health or educational outcome. On the contrary: They found that the program, which ran from 2007 to 2011, actually had detrimental effects, correlating with an uptick in discipline and absence rates."

So what's the answer? Clearly, physical fitness is important. There are so many health benefits -- physical and emotional -- that come with exercise. Ideally, gym class should be a place where children can have fun, build motor skills and discover the value of team work and good sportsmanship. But gym class needs an update. Students should never be given the option of choosing their own teams, as this practice can only lead to victimization of students who aren't athletically gifted. Secondly, students should be given the freedom to focus on athletic activities that make them feel successful. Those who choose to play team sports should have that option while students who prefer less competitive forms of exercise such as walking, running, yoga, swimming or stretching, should be given those options. Finally, phys. ed. teachers should encourage and care for all of their students, even the ones who aren't athletically inclined. They should never turn away when they see bullying happening in their classes.

In an age where teen mental health is top of mind for so many of us, removing the stress and anguish associated with gym class seems like an obvious solution. What's taking so long?

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