Benefits of Physical Education in Schools for Adolescents by C.R.

Sam Rodriguez walked into Lakeshore Athletic Club to meet with his physical trainer for what seemed to be the one thousandth time. I knew Sam was an active guy who enjoyed working out, but I never understood just how important his daily sweat was. As I walked into the gym to see him doing what looked like a deathly ab workout, I decided to finally ask him why he is so dedicated. “Well it’s kinda funny but when I grew up, I was actually huge.” Surprised, I asked him to explain further. “When I was eight-years-old, I weighed almost 175 pounds. I didn’t know what working out really was, and pretty much anything with unpronounceable ingredients was my go to snack.” Seeing that Sam was one of the more fit people my age that I’ve seen, I was more than shocked.

Childhood obesity is shockingly common and often ignored due to the proposition that excess body fat is simply just “baby fat.” According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one third of children between the ages of six and nineteen are either overweight or obese. After the realization of the severity of excess body fat in children and adolescents, schools decided they needed to have some same in the health of their students.

Physical education first became a subject in schools at the beginning of the 19th century in the form of gymnastics. Its correlation with human health was quickly observed. At the beginning of the 20th century, personal hygiene and exercise for health were integrated in the physical education curriculum. The exclusive focus on health, though, was said to be “too narrow and detrimental to the development of the whole child” by educator Thomas Wood. The education community adopted Wood’s inclusive approach to physical education where fundamental movements and skills for games and sports were incorporated as the focus of instruction. During the 15 years after, physical education once again evolved to connect body movement to its consequences, teaching students the science behind living a healthy lifestyle and skills needed for an active lifestyle.

Sam Rodriguez was a huge beneficiary of physical education programs taught in his high school. Going into high school, he still maintained the excess body fat he had mentioned when he was eight. At the start of his freshman year, he signed up for the obligatory Fitness program.  

To understand physical education as a component of the education system, it is important to know that the education system in the United States does not operate with a blanketed curriculum. Learning standards are developed by national organizations such as the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) or state education agencies instead of the federal Department of Education; all curricular decisions are made locally by school districts or individual schools in agreement with state standards. Physical education is influenced by this system, which leads to great diversity in policies and requirements. Most states today mandate physical education for both elementary and secondary schools.

For Rodriguez along with many other overweight students, the thought of having to exercise in front of other students, particularly fit ones, is terrifying. “At first I was apprehensive because I had never been required to take a PE class ever before. I had heard all of the horror stories of having to climb the rope and having your gym shorts slide off or getting picked last for team sports. I didn’t have an option though so I tried to see the best in it.” Rodriguez soon after fell in love with the class and recognized the importance of physical education. Later explaining the benefits he noticed from taking the class, he accredited his major weight loss to his high school PE class. His new found love for health and fitness sparked his love for Olympic Lifting where he has found great success. He is down to only 8% body fat, much less than his previous 38%.

Unlike other physical activities sponsored by schools such as junior varsity and varsity team sports, physical education represents the only time and place for every student to learn knowledge and skills related to physical activity and to be physically active during the school day. It also is currently the only time and place for all children to engage in vigorous physical activity safely because of the structured and supervised environment. It is expected that students will use the skills and knowledge learned in physical education in other physical activity opportunities in school, such as recess, active transportation, and intramural sports. For these reasons, physical education programs have been identified as the foundation on which the health of individual students can be improved by schools.

Recommended levels of vigorous physical activity for teenagers are more likely to be achieved in schools where the physical environment, the school’s programs, and the school’s staff all provide greater amounts of physical activity throughout the day during physical education. This being said, physical education has a large and crucial impact on the individual fitness levels of high school aged students. Mr. Andrew Johnson, a PE teacher at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder, Co agrees.

Living in one of the most fit places in America, Johnson isn’t super familiar with a large number of obese children entering his gym classes each day. When asked about the impact of his classes on the fitness levels of individuals he stated, “You see, my gym classes aren’t just to make my students lose weight. They’re to teach them the importance of being fit and healthy and with that, I think physical education is important and is indeed effective.” He believes that teaching his students the importance of being healthy and fit instills a desire within them to try in class and put in effort towards their fitness. “Sometimes they don’t even realize that what they’re doing is actually to get in shape because they’re having so much fun. To me, that’s success. To have them recognize that what they’re doing for fun is actually making them healthy is what promotes fitness. When they’re having fun they’re more likely to enjoy it and make it a bigger part of their lives.” According to Johnson, the more fun students have in physical education classes, the more likely they are to be more active in their daily lives.

In a review on the purpose of physical education programs in school by The New York Times, it was stated that “The physical education curriculum is one of the most crucial programs in early schooling as they can promote good health, giving students a new way to make them fit and learn their lessons at the same time.” Physical education in schools has myriad benefits, the main one being health. The benefits of physical fitness extend beyond physical advantages, though. Exercise throughout the school day has more advantages than one might presume.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, physical education programs during the school day explain the correlation between active students and academic success.  Evidence suggests that increasing physical activity and physical fitness may improve academic performance and that time in the school day dedicated to recess, physical education class, and physical activity in the classroom may also facilitate academic performance, specifically in math and science. These topics depend on efficient and effective executive function, which has been linked to physical activity and physical fitness. Executive function and brain health underlie academic performance. Basic cognitive functions related to attention and memory facilitate learning, and these functions are enhanced by physical activity and higher aerobic fitness. This being said, the more active you are, the more success you’ll find in academia. Single sessions of and long-term participation in physical activity improve cognitive performance and brain health. Children who participate in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity benefit the most.

Michael Zarian, a Fairview High School student and athlete, believes his extreme involvement in swimming has given way for his academic successes. Committed to swim for Harvard’s Men’s Swim Team beginning this upcoming Fall, Zarian is clearly an intelligent and athletic individual. I was able to sit down with Michael to discuss his success in both academics and swimming. When asked to explain how he thinks swimming has impacted his school career, he stated: “You know, I believe there is more to life than just school and just swimming. To me it was all about balance. Without school, I wouldn’t be where I am with swimming and without swimming, I wouldn’t be able to function academically. Taking so many hard classes, being able to let it all go while I swim is actually a huge blessing.” According to Michael, without swimming, he wouldn’t be as successful in his schooling. Zarian is a perfect example of the benefits of exercise in his life, both in his schooling and health.

Physical education programs in schools clearly add many benefits to the health of individuals in the classroom, as well as outside. Physical education is the grassroots program for all activity in America. According to a study done by PHIT America, students who take a PE class during the school day are 35% more likely to play a team sport or participate in rigorous outdoor activities regularly. This statistic shows the importance of physical education programs in schools.

In accordance with Sam Rodriguez, Michael Zarian, and Andrew Johnson, physical education in schools is the basis for building a strong and successful future for yourself. It not only increases the health and fitness of individuals and promotes academic success, but produces more active youth outside of school as well.

As I was walking out of Lakeshore Athletic Club for the night, I wave goodbye to Rodriguez as he finishes his work out. Knowing that once he carried around so much excess weight on his body and seeing him come full circle from that, I am inspired and motivated to reach my own physical goals as well as educate others on the importance of exercise.

“This is all thanks to my freshman year gym class, Claire!” I hear Rodriguez yell as the automatic exit doors close behind me.

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