Bringing Back Physical Activity

Unless you've been living under a rock, it's hard not to notice obesity is on the rise in North America. For the first time in history, this generation's children will have shorter life expectancies than their parents because of obesity-related illnesses. In Canada, the strain that obesity will pose to public health care is a source of concern. Politicians and organizations point their fingers at multiple culprits: fast food, parents who are too busy and stressed to cook nutritious meals for their children or monitor their kids' eating habits, the lack of safe outdoors spaces for urban kids to play in, etc.

In the middle of this blame game, many people argue for mandatory physical education from kindergarten to grade 12. They insist that kids today are too sedentary and mandatory phys ed throughout high school will combat hours spent in front of television screens, textbooks, and computer monitors. One of the most vocal and high-profile proponents in North America is Shaq, who now has his own reality show on ABC where he helps obese kids lose weight while lobbying for increased PE funding in public schools.

I personally abhor the idea of making high school PE mandatory for all students. What's more, I think that unless the curriculum changes drastically, mandatory high school PE will have the adverse effect of turning fairly sedentary, inactive kids off any sort of physical activity well into their adult lives. Allow me to explain based on personal experience, but first I'm going to define "physical activity" versus "sports."

"Physical activity" is anything that gets your heart pumping, your body sweating, and your physique in shape. Biking, walking, hiking, kayaking, dancing...these are all forms of recreational physical activity. I associate "sports" with playing on a team, tossing a ball around, competitiveness, and scoring points. It is sports, rather than physical activity, that form the core of most public school PE curricula.

My high school PE class rotated between sports units--softball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, rugby--with several weeks for each. When we didn't play sports, we were made to run laps and do push-ups and sit-ups to assess our fitness level. Our school was lucky enough to have a swimming pool, so we had a swimming unit that lasted roughly a month as well. In between, the PE teachers tried their best to introduce us to other forms of physical activity, like a dance unit (run by a PE teacher who had no real dance training), but these were rare occasions that only marked the transition from one sport to another.

This was all fine and good if you enjoyed sports and running, but I really didn't. My hand-eye coordination was so deficient that any sort of throwing/catching was beyond me. What was worse, I discovered I was semi-ambidextrous when it came to anything I had to do with my hands. Although I'm right-handed, I dribbled a basketball, shot a lay-up, and threw a softball with my left hand. Every sport turned into a painful trial-and-error process as I tried to figure out which hand was more comfortable doing what. Yeesh. PE was basically an hour and twenty minutes of me staying out of the way as pushier girls lunged for the ball. I wasn't having fun at all.

In fact, PE disgusted me so much it planted the idea in my head that since I wasn't good at sports and it wasn't fun for me, I just wasn't a very physical person. It wasn't until third year university when I tried salsa dancing that I found a form of physical activity I really enjoyed. I wasn't playing a sport, but I was working up more of a sweat and enjoying myself more than I did when standing in the outfield and praying the batter would hit one far, far away from me. All of a sudden, physical activity was fun in a way it hadn't been since I ran around the playground screeching and playing frozen tag in elementary school.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. I've talked to many people who remember excelling academically in school and hating competitive sports and how sports-centric PE was, and feeling like they were the most uncoordinated klutzes in the world and becoming discouraged from physical activity. These people have since gone on to find recreational physical activities they really enjoy such as mountain biking, skiing, and yoga. They work out at the gym and go kayaking.

If educators want to teach kids to be physically active for life, they need to include more than just sports in PE curricula. Making PE mandatory across the board is only a partial solution. PE teachers must show the kids who don't enjoy sports that other forms of physical activity exist. If curricula don't become more diverse, kids who don't enjoy competitive sports will think they aren't meant to be physically active and that physical activity isn't fun, when in fact it's sports and not physical activity in general that they don't like. Let's teach kids to have fun while being physically active. They'll be better participants in PE and physically active outside of school, and in the end, isn't it the latter that we're aiming for?

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