America knows that childhood obesity is a problem. But recognizing the problem is not enough to understand how to avoid it. One way to avoid making our children fat is to completely change the way physical fitness is viewed and taught in schools.
PE classes are especially useless for the kinds of children who end up obese as adults, or who are already overweight. Put yourself in the shoes of a child in school, having to face uncomfortable challenges, in a competitive environment, with children making fun of them, and teachers often criticizing them to move faster or better somehow and you will understand why these children are more likely to fail in PE. With so much social scrutiny over what should be a fun, rewarding, and highly personal experience, children who do not meet the social criteria in these early formative years end up hating PE. They dread PE. How tragic. Perfectly fit kids can just end up fat.
Physical fitness has to be fun. There needs to be room for customization, such as in yoga. There should not be any tolerance for teasing by other children or the teachers (and that does happen.) Grading cannot be based on objective measures but rather on effort. Anything that builds anxiety needs to be thrown out of the current curriculum.
Physical fitness needs to teach children skills that they will use as adults. How many of you still do what you did in PE when you were young? Most adults who go to the gym barely do the kinds of exercises taught to children in PE. Fit adults either jog, or they do pilates, yoga, weights, or a fun class like zumba. They do not actually play team sports or jumping jacks. Why not teach children yoga or other exercises that they will actually maintain?
Physical fitness is extremely personal. One of the key elements that all people need to learn is to listen to their own body and to know when to start and when to stop. HeartMark Health is a big educator to help people listen to their body as they exercise or eat.
PE classes, in their current form, are a place for dread for anyone who isn’t quite #1 on the basket ball court. Girls and boys, who really care about personal relationships or about winning, can feel especially isolated if they are not desired by the team. Many children, who are naturally active at home, might not be as successful on the court. They may be too young, too short, or less successful for whatever reasons. And even though they are physically fit and fine, they will turn against PE and they may turn into fat adults.
Anyone who does HeartMark Yogalates or any other yoga routine hears in the begining of every class the teacher’s advice to listen to one’s own body. Any pose that hurts is wrong. No one should ever do anything that is uncomfortable. PE teachers don’t recognize that people’s bodies have individual needs. They need to foster strengths, not pinpoint weaknesses.
Most PE teachers are caught in the cycle of passing on the abuse that they received when they were young. “Can’t you go any faster, slowpoke?” (I cannot imagine a yoga teacher encouraging a pose using this tactic.) It is very tough to break a cycle. Ballet teachers tend to say the same things they heard when young to their students. PE teachers do the same. (Nutritionists have been teaching people mistakes for years as well. It takes years for actual changes to happen. How many were told by their nutritionists to eat five servings of bread for years? They should have said starches. And how many mistakenly refer to the starches as “carbs?”)
PE teachers cannot place such an emphasis on winning. They need to place the emphasis on doing your personal best. They need to remember that PE has to be fun. They need to think about what they’re teaching as long term skills. Children are there to learn how to keep their body fit for life. They are not there to beat the other kids. If parents care about the competitive element, than that has to be an after school activity. It should not come out of tax dollars. I want my kids to learn skills in PE that they will use to stay fit as adults. Most children are not on their way to be professional athtetes. And that is not the purpose of PE during school hours.
In fact, music and art, which are also taught in school, are also not taught in order to make children professional at these subjects. The specialization occurs in college when students pay to receive a degree, or outside of school hours.
So please, stop torturing children in PE. Above all else, please make it fun–for everyone!