“I’m so glad I have gym class tomorrow,” said my fifth grader as she was helping me clear the dinner table.
“Why is that?” I asked, since my daughter didn’t normally say much about PE.
“We have testing all day, and it’s just nice to take a break,” she said.
I suspect many kids – like my own – see running around, jumping rope and all the activities in physical education as a reprieve from the other academic rigors of their day. Just ask children what their favorite class is in school and, if their first answer isn’t “gym class,” it’s likely the second (right after “recess”).
As it turns out, this time away from sitting at a desk may be exactly what kids need to do better once they’re back in math, science or reading. Study after study points out that the benefits of physical education go far beyond fitness and can lead to higher scores on standardized tests, increased concentration and other academic advantages.
Yet in spite of all the research pointing out the perks of regular phys ed for kids, gym class time is decreasing for students across the board – from kindergarten to high school. And the results are evident: A study by the American Heart Association found that it takes kids today an average 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it took kids 30 years ago.
What kids learn in gym
A typical gym class is fairly similar between all grades, says Pat Van Volkinburg, of University of Michigan’s school of kinesiology: “The kids will come in and have a warm-up for five to six minutes, which could include running laps, dribbling the soccer ball, jumping rope.”
Warm-ups are followed by training time, where students receive instruction in a new skill or practice one they’ve been learning, like serving a volleyball or running with good form. Then the kids have an activity that reinforces those skills – sometimes a group game. At the end of class, students cool down with stretches and may review what they learned as part of a group discussion.
Beyond the physical activity, gym class holds other lessons. “There’s also the social aspect of PE,” notes Van Volkinburg. “It teaches people how to be kind to each other, how to be a good sport, how to apologize. That doesn’t happen in math or English class.”
Kids are also discovering different sports and new activities during their time in gym.
“I really try to vary the activities we do in class as much as possible,” says Michelle Thompson, a physical education teacher at Davis Junior High School in Sterling Heights.
“My main goal is to have students find some type of activity that they like. We try a little bit of everything. I want them to be able to take away from class something that will help them to stay active.”
Shrinking gym time
Through the years, as schools are required to administer additional standardized tests to students and more emphasis has been placed on core subjects like reading, math and the sciences, physical education time has been cut.
“It seems like the minutes students have in gym class decreases every year,” says Van Volkinburg. “Depending on the school district, the students may have PE three days a week for 30 minutes, some have it for 40 minutes once a week. You really can’t do a lot in that amount of time.”
Cheryl Gawel, a physical education teacher at Poupard Elementary School in Harper Woods and Mason Elementary in Grosse Pointe Woods, points out that her students have PE once every four days for 45 minutes. At Pittsfield Elementary in Ann Arbor, Darcy Knoll, the PE teacher there, has 30-minute class periods twice a week for kindergarten through fourth graders; fifth graders have PE once a week for 45 minutes.
But the biggest cut to gym class has come at the high school level. According to our state board of education, Michigan “requires one credit of health and physical education for graduation. Schools have flexibility in how they meet the requirement.” The broad requirement has left school districts to figure out what one credit looks like. For some, it’s half a semester of physical education, while for others, students are required to have a full semester. That means that during freshman year, a student could take one semester of physical education and then never visit the gym again during the rest of high school.
The mandate goes even further to erode physical education at the high school level. There are several ways to get around ever going to gym class.
“They can test out,” explains Roxane McCormick, a gym teacher at Salem High School, part of Plymouth-Canton Educational Park.
“In our district, it’s a three-part test that involves running, swimming and a written portion. Students have to pass all three with an 80 percent score or better.”
Another option? The state mandate includes a provision that students who take an additional class – like language arts, mathematics, science or world language courses – can use those classes to replace gym. Or a student’s PE credit can be waived if he or she participates in extracurriculars that involve activity; the state includes sports and marching band on the list.
“Physical education requirements keep dwindling,” says McCormick. “Students really need more time than that.”
Benefits of phys ed
For many kids, gym class may be the only activity they get not just during the school day – but sometimes the whole week.
“I strongly believe that physical education is the only activity/exercise that some students obtain each week,” says Knoll, who has been a PE teacher for 15 years. She points out that children are less active and healthy than they used to be.
While phys ed alone isn’t the answer to helping kids become more active, it certainly can guide them toward finding activities they enjoy and give them a chance to exercise during the school day. Recent stats report that among adolescents in Michigan, almost 15 percent are overweight – and nearly 12 percent are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McCormick has seen how higher obesity rates have impacted students in her gym class. “We have kids who have a hard time just walking around the track at a quick pace. We try to teach them how to pick it up to improve their activity levels. It’s hard to keep at it if you don’t have anyone supporting you.”
Gym class can be a place for students to not only have activity during their school day but also explore different sports. “We’re teaching them skills that they can take with them – skills they can have and use for the rest of their lives,” McCormick says.
Although it can be discouraging for PE teachers to see their time with students cut, McCormick tries to focus on the positive impact gym can have – no matter how short.
“Just having the kids for one semester, I notice vast improvements. For example, we do a pre- and post-test with running. I often have students at the beginning (of the semester) who have a hard time doing three laps during the timed test. By the end of the semester, those same students are doing two-and-a-half or three miles in the same amount of time. They just need a little encouragement.”
Helping kids stay fit
How can you tell if your child is getting enough exercise? Sixty minutes of vigorous to moderate-intensity exercise a day – that’s how much exercise both the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health experts recommend children get each day.
How do you know whether exercise is “vigorous” or “moderate intensity”? A good rule of thumb is that children should break a sweat during the activity. But they should still be able to talk while doing it. If they’re out of breath, they’ve probably pushed too far.
Gym teachers agree: When it comes to inspiring kids to be active, mom and dad are key. Here are a few ways they say parents can help children get more out of phys ed.
“Ask your child, ‘What did you do in physical education today?’ and ‘Can we do that together?,” Van Volkinburg suggests.
“Do an activity with your child. Not only is this physically healthy, but it also develops a healthy relationship between parent and child,” says Knoll.
“Your children love your gift of time! Walk, bike, swim, twirl a jump rope, play catch, shoot hoops. Undivided attention time with your kids is so important. No phone, no texts – just you and your guy or gal,” suggests Gawel.
Unkovich says, “Emphasize (to your child) why it’s important to stay active. We’re not exercising to look a certain way; the goal is to stay healthy, fit and strong.”
This article was originally published in April 2014 and has been updated.