I remember sitting in the gym, the fall of my freshman year fearing that I could actually melt because the heat and humidity were so intense. Out gym hadn’t been redone (it still hasn’t been redone) since it was founded over fifty years ago. This meant that it did not have heating or air-conditioning; only windows that would open and allow bird to fly in and out of the facility. Another factor in my overheating gym career was not working out too hard- if anything we didn’t work out hard enough if we worked out at all- it was how many people were in the gym. There were three classes of about thirty-five kids in the gym at a time. This means that there were about 105 kids in the gym that was just bigger than a basketball court.
I say this to show you that gyms in the US public school system are not conducive environments to exist in (who can concentrate when they are profusely sweating?), let alone workout and teach about physical activity in. In middle school, our gym classes had units where we would learn the rules of a sport or game and then practice the skills needed for “lifelong activity.” In high school, it was all the teachers could do to ensure that the majority of the kids didn’t skip class to get in fights outside. We did not have units. Every day the gym teachers threw some sports balls out and told us to do something active. I am not kidding when I say that I saw kids actually fall asleep in gym class. There were a few kids who actually played sports, but the majority of us were too overwhelmed and didn’t have enough direction or structure to organize and play sports on our own.
This gym class experience may be an anomaly, but I have a feeling it’s not too far off from other people’s experiences. Gym was a joke. You took it freshman year because it was a graduation requirement and there was no homework. While this may seem convenient to policy makers, administration, gym teachers and students in the moment, the lack of structured physical activity built into the school day actually harms these groups in the long run. Harvard Medical School recently published an article about the benefits of exercise, specifically in learning. The article acknowledges the obvious reasons why exercise is good, like decreasing risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and lower blood pressure, but it also details how regular exercise changes one’s brain to improve memory and thinking skills used in learning. They analyzed the findings of a study done at the University of British Columbia on aerobic exercise. If a person walked or did an aerobic activity of equal or greater intensity twice a week for one hour (120 minutes over a week), over the course of six months, the hippocampus, which is involved in verbal memory and learning, would increase in size, increasing individuals abilities in these skills.
Even more, the study found that “exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety” which most high schoolers would find beneficial. If some form of physical activity was offered for thirty minutes a day or even forty-five minutes every other day at schools, students would be better able to learn from an entirely anatomical point of view, they would have an opportunity to work off steam and take a mental break during the day, allowing them to pay better attention in other classes, stress and anxiety levels would decrease and mood and sleep would increase. These sound like great benefits to me! I know as a high schooler, and even now as a college student, an opportunity to work out in the middle of the school day would improve my functioning and abilities the rest of the day.
Although I do think that there needs to be more physical activity incorporated into the school day, I understand that time can be of the essence in school. However, I know that in my high school and other schools in our area, we had a forty-five minute period each day that was to be used for additional time in classes for tutoring or other things. However, this time was usually utilized for teachers to catch up on grading papers and students doing busy work or chatting. If this time is in the school day and already being wasted, why not just make it a time for kids to take a mental and physical break from the realm of academia?
USA Today published a story about the need for more physical activity and how to practically start incorporating it into the school day. Some suggestions are:
- Spending half of already existing gym time doing moderate to vigorous physical activity
- Incorporating physical activity into class breaks, recess and other learning opportunities
- Stop cutting gym from the school day to add in more academics
- Urge state legislatures and departments of education to adopt new and strengthen existing recess, gym and before and after school physical activity programs.
What do you think should be done about the decrease in physical activity in high school? Do you think it’s a problem that needs to be discussed more or not? I’d love to hear your thoughts!