The case against phys ed

Dec 4 JDN 2459918

If I want to stop someone from engaging in an activity, what should I do? I could tell them it’s wrong, and if they believe me, that would work. But what if they don’t believe me? Or I could punish them for doing it, and as long as I can continue to do that reliably, that should deter them from doing it. But what happens after I remove the punishment?

If I really want to make someone not do something, the best way to accomplish that is to make them not want to do it. Make them dread doing it. Make them hate the very thought of it. And to accomplish that, a very efficient method would be to first force them to do it, but make that experience as miserable and humiliating is possible. Give them a wide variety of painful or outright traumatic experiences that are directly connected with the undesired activity, to carry with them for the rest of their life.

This is precisely what physical education does, with regard to exercise. Phys ed is basically optimized to make people hate exercise.

Oh, sure, some students enjoy phys ed. These are the students who are already athletic and fit, who already engage in regular exercise and enjoy doing so. They may enjoy phys ed, may even benefit a little from it—but they didn’t really need it in the first place.

The kids who need more physical activity are the kids who are obese, or have asthma, or suffer from various other disabilities that make exercising difficult and painful for them. And what does phys ed do to those kids? It makes them compete in front of their peers at various athletic tasks at which they will inevitably fail and be humiliated.

Even the kids who are otherwise healthy but just don’t get enough exercise will go into phys ed class at a disadvantage, and instead of being carefully trained to improve their skills and physical condition at their own level, they will be publicly shamed by their peers for their inferior performance.

I know this, because I was one of those kids. I have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, a lung condition similar to asthma (actually there’s some debate as to whether it should be considered a form of asthma), in which intense aerobic exercise causes the airways of my lungs to become constricted and inflamed, making me unable to get enough air to continue.

It’s really quite remarkable I wasn’t diagnosed with this as a child; I actually once collapsed while running in gym class, and all they thought to do at the time was give me water and let me rest for the remainder of the class. Nobody thought to call the nurse. I was never put on a beta agonist or an inhaler. (In fact at one point I was put on a beta blocker for my migraines; I now understand why I felt so fatigued when taking it—it was literally the opposite of the drug my lungs needed.)

Actually it’s been a few years since I had an attack. This is of course partly due to me generally avoiding intense aerobic exercise; but even when I do get intense exercise, I rarely seem to get bronchoconstriction attacks. My working hypothesis is that the norepinephrine reuptake inhibition of my antidepressant acts like a beta agonist; both drugs mimic norepinephrine.

But as a child, I got such attacks quite frequently; and even when I didn’t, my overall athletic performance was always worse than most of the other kids. They knew it, I knew it, and while only a few actively tried to bully me for it, none of the others did anything to make me feel better. So gym class was always a humiliating and painful experience that I came to dread.

As a result, as soon as I got out of school and had my own autonomy in how to structure my own life, I basically avoided exercise whenever I could. Even knowing that it was good for me—really, exercise is ridiculously good for you; it honestly doesn’t even make sense to me how good it is for you—I could rarely get myself to actually go out and exercise. I certainly couldn’t do it with anyone else; sometimes, if I was very disciplined, I could manage to maintain an exercise routine by myself, as long as there was no one else there who could watch me, judge me, or compare themselves to me.

In fact, I’d probably have avoided exercise even more, had I not also had some more positive experiences with it outside of school. I trained in martial arts for a few years, getting almost to a black belt in tae kwon do; I quit precisely when it started becoming very competitive and thus began to feel humiliated again when I performed worse than others. Part of me wishes I had stuck with it long enough to actually get the black belt; but the rest of me knows that even if I’d managed it, I would have been miserable the whole time and it probably would have made me dread exercise even more.

The details of my story are of course individual to me; but the general pattern is disturbingly common. A kid does poorly in gym class, or even suffers painful attacks of whatever disabling condition they have, but nobody sees it as a medical problem; they just see the kid as weak and lazy. Or even if the adults are sympathetic, the other kids aren’t; they just see a peer who performed worse than them, and they have learned by various subtle (and not-so-subtle) cultural pressures that anyone who performs worse at a culturally-important task is worthy of being bullied and shunned.

Even outside the directly competitive environment of sports, the very structure of a phys ed class, where a large group of students are all expected to perform the same athletic tasks and can directly compare their performance against each other, invites this kind of competition. Kids can see, right in their faces, who is doing better and who is doing worse. And our culture is astonishingly bad at teaching children (or anyone else, for that matter) how to be sympathetic to others who perform worse. Worse performance is worse character. Being bad at running, jumping and climbing is just being bad.

Part of the problem is that school administrators seem to see physical education as a training and selection regimen for their sports programs. (In fact, some of them seem to see their entire school as existing to serve their sports programs.) Here is a UK government report bemoaning the fact that “only a minority of schools play competitive sport to a high level”, apparently not realizing that this is necessarily true because high-level sports performance is a relative concept. Only one team can win the championship each year. Only 10% of students will ever be in the top 10% of athletes. No matter what. Anything else is literally mathematically impossible. We do not live in Lake Wobegon; not all the children can be above average.

There are good phys ed programs out there. They have highly-trained instructors and they focus on matching tasks to a student’s own skill level, as well as actually educating them—teaching them about anatomy and physiology rather than just making them run laps. Actually the one phys ed class I took that I actually enjoyed was actually an anatomy and physiology class; we didn’t do any physical exercise in that class. But well-taught phys ed classes are clearly the exception, not the norm.

Of course, it could be that some students actually benefit from phys ed, perhaps even enough to offset the harms to people like me. (Though then the question should be asked whether phys ed should be compulsory for all students—if an intervention helps some and hurts others, maybe only give it to the ones it helps?) But I know very few people who actually described their experiences of phys ed class as positive ones. While many students describe their experiences of math class in similarly-negative terms (which is also a problem with how math classes are taught), I definitely do know people who actually enjoyed and did well in math class. Still, my sample is surely biased—it’s comprised of people similar to me, and I hated gym and loved math. So let’s look at the actual data.

Or rather, I’d like to, but there isn’t that much out there. The empirical literature on the effects of physical education is surprisingly limited.

A lot of analyses of physical education simply take as axiomatic that more phys ed means more exercise, and so they use the—overwhelming, unassailable—evidence that exercise is good to support an argument for more phys ed classes. But they never seem to stop and take a look at whether phys ed classes are actually making kids exercise more, particularly once those kids grow up and become adults.

In fact, the surprisingly weak correlations between higher physical activity and better mental health among adolescents (despite really strong correlations in adults) could be because exercise among adolescents is largely coerced via phys ed, and the misery of being coerced into physical humiliation counteracts any benefits that might have been obtained from increased exercise.

The best long-term longitudinal study I can find did show positive effects of phys ed on long-term health, though by a rather odd mechanism: Women exercised more as adults if they had phys ed in primary school, but men didn’t; they just smoked less. And this study was back in 1999, studying a cohort of adults who had phys ed quite a long time ago, when it was better funded.

The best experiment I can find actually testing whether phys ed programs work used a very carefully designed phys ed program with a lot of features that it would be really nice to have, but the vast majority of actual gym classes do not, including carefully structured activities with specific developmental goals, and, perhaps most importantly, children were taught to track and evaluate their own individual progress rather than evaluate themselves in comparison to others.

And even then, the effects are not all that large. The physical activity scores of the treatment group rose from 932 minutes per week to 1108 minutes per week for first-graders, and from 1212 to 1454 for second-graders. But the physical activity scores of the control group rose from 906 to 996 for first-graders, and 1105 to 1211 for second-graders. So of the 176 minutes per week gained by first-graders, 90 would have happened anyway. Likewise, of the 242 minutes per week gained by second-graders, 106 were not attributable to the treatment. Only about half of the gains were due to the intervention, and they amount to about a 10% increase in overall physical activity. It also seems a little odd to me that the control groups both started worse off than the experimental groups and both groups gained; it raises some doubts about the randomization.

The researchers also measured psychological effects, and these effects are even smaller and honestly a little weird. On a scale of “somatic anxiety” (basically, how bad do you feel about your body’s physical condition?), this well-designed phys ed program only reduced scores in the treatment group from 4.95 to 4.55 among first-graders, and from 4.50 to 4.10 among second-graders. Seeing as the scores for second-graders also fell in the control group from 4.63 to 4.45, only about half of the observed reduction—0.2 points on a 10-point scale—is really attributable to the treatment. And the really baffling part is that the measure of social anxiety actually fell more, which makes me wonder if they’re really measuring what they think they are.

Clearly, exercise is good. We should be trying to get people to exercise more. Actually, this is more important than almost anything else we could do for public health, with the possible exception of vaccinations. All of these campaigns trying to get kids to lose weight should be removed and replaced with programs to get them to exercise more, because losing weight doesn’t benefit health and exercising more does.

But I am not convinced that physical education as we know it actually makes people exercise more. In the short run, it forces kids to exercise, when there were surely ways to get kids to exercise that didn’t require such coercion; and in the long run, it gives them painful, even traumatic memories of exercise that make them not want to continue it once they get older. It’s too competitive, too one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t account for innate differences in athletic ability or match challenge levels to skill levels. It doesn’t help kids cope with having less ability, or even teach kids to be compassionate toward others with less ability than them.

And it makes kids miserable.

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