Mind & Body

Your Exercise Habits Today Might Depend on Your Opinion of Gym Class as a Kid

Gym class is polarizing. Some kids love it, some kids hate it; some adults have fond memories of it, others remember nothing but trauma. But it exists for a reason: to teach children how to live healthy, active lives. However, for those who remember gym class as unpleasant, that goal may have backfired. That's according to a new study — and some heartbreaking testimonials it uncovered.

Related Video: Vintage Scenes from Gym Class

No Pain No Gain

According to the World Health Organization, about a quarter of the world's population doesn't get enough exercise. In the United States, the numbers are direr: nearly half don't meet the CDC's guidelines for aerobic activity, and even fewer meet its muscle-building guidelines. Clearly, we're not exercising enough, and experts want to know how to fix that.

The research is sparse, but at least one study has looked into how negative experiences in gym class, aka physical education or P.E., affect exercise habits later in life. In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance found that people who remembered being picked last for sports teams in P.E. ended up exercising much less as adults. This doesn't necessarily mean that being picked last is what caused them to exercise less — it may have been their displeasure with exercise that led them to be picked last in the first place — but it points to one possibility. Plus, other research shows that if you expect exercise to be unpleasant, it likely will be, and unpleasant memories of exercise seem like a great way to plant that expectation.

A team at Iowa State University wanted to dive in further, so they created a detailed online questionnaire that had people rate their memories of gym class, their feelings about exercise today, and their current exercise habits, including how much time they spent moving and sitting throughout the week. Importantly, the questionnaire also had open-ended questions that invited the respondents to describe their best or worst memory of gym class in as much detail as they desired. In the end, the researchers ended up with more than 1,000 responses from people across a wide range of ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Remember, Remember P.E. from November

The results of their study, which was published in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, showed that when it came to their memories of P.E., people were roughly split down the middle — the researchers received almost exactly the same number of positive memories as negative memories. Regardless of whether they were good or bad, many were "vivid and emotionally charged" even this many years later, the authors wrote.

"Best" memories ran the gamut from recalling favorite sports to remembering one teacher that made a difference.

"All of it. I dominated in PE," one (lucky) respondent wrote. "Scoring a winning shot when playing basketball," another wrote, one of many who fondly recalled winning a game or breaking a record in class.

One particularly touching passage came from a student who was "soooo bad at pretty much every sport" remembering a teacher, Mr. Schwartz, who taught them how to hit a softball. "I was never a total liability to any softball team since," they wrote.

"Worst" memories also ranged from minor annoyances to traumatic experiences. Many people recalled specific activities: the rope climb was a particularly unpopular one, as were pull-ups and running. Others remembered moments of embarrassment getting dressed in the locker room, being picked last for a team, or failing at a fitness test.

Some remembered times they were bullied by other students, or even their own teachers. "She would call me lazy and make me run laps around the gym," one person said of their P.E. coach. Another remembered getting hit in the face with a basketball and the coach's cruel reaction: "... my nose started bleeding all over the floor and the coach made me clean it up before he let me wash myself up and go to the nurse and everyone was laughing at me and I wanted to kill myself."

Overall, the researchers found that how people felt about P.E. as kids was linked to how they feel about exercise today, along with how physically active they are on the weekend. They concluded that gym teachers might have more success if they focus more on ways to make kids realize how fun exercise can be, rather than how many pull-ups they can do or three-pointers they can shoot. They also suggest offering students more options, since some kids might love competitive team sports while others might prefer noncompetitive solo activities. "The vividness and emotionality of the reported worst memories underscores the necessity of fostering pleasure and enjoyment from human movement as a fundamental goal of PE," they conclude.

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Love P.E. and science class? Check out "The Science of Gym Class: More Than Just Dodgeball and Sweatpants" by Darlene R. Stille. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 11, 2018

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