Physical Education

It is really important that we promote competitive support in schools. It is very important that we recognise that has to be underpinned by good quality physical education and by getting people into patterns of exercise - Sebastian Coe

Physical Education

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For many middle school students, the words "Phys Ed" are enough to provoke fear—fear of getting dressed in the locker room, of wearing a nerdy uniform, of looking clumsy, of being picked last.

Tammy Brant, a gym teacher at Selma Middle School, in Selma, Ind., is rethinking the way schools have taught girls and boys about fitness. Instead of group calisthenics and contests that favor the most athletic kids, Ms. Brant, like many other teachers nationwide, devotes class time to fitness instruction and to games structured so that more kids can play and enjoy.

Instead of pushing everyone to hit specific performance targets, she urges them to progress toward individualized "fitness zones." She teaches the stages of a workout—warm-up, training, cool-down—and straps a heart monitor on each child. The goal is to instill healthy habits for life.

The increasingly popular approach is one way educators are addressing child and teen obesity rates, which have tripled since 1980 to 17%. Ms. Brant's class is producing fitter teens who have developed the exercise habit, and the results are measurable. Data from one class last year show students posted a collective 56% increase in push-ups, an 11% increase in curl-ups and a 9% rise in 20-meter shuttle-run laps.

Lacy Ison, 13, wasn't looking forward to running in middle-school gym class, and she didn't much like playing basketball, either. "I'm not that good. You have to run while dribbling the ball, and while people are blocking you, you have to shoot," says Lacy, now in eighth grade at Selma Middle School. "I will never get it," she remembers thinking.

In Ms. Brant's classes during the past two years, Lacy learned several games that she likes to play, including "ultimate," (the Frisbee game) and pickleball (with paddles). "You have to run, but it was fun," Lacy says. Small, evenly-matched teams of two or three players gave everyone a chance to win.

If the wrist transmitter connected to the heart monitor beeps during her workout, she knows she is below her target heart rate. "I would run a little faster," Lacy says.

At first, she struggled to do one push-up. But over four months last year, she raised her count to three, then to five in summer. She increased the number of 20-meter laps she ran to 16 from 11, and did 25 curl-ups, or modified sit-ups, up from 21. "I wanted to get stronger in the arms, and I think I did pretty good," Lacy says. She gained enough skill in basketball to feel comfortable playing pickup games.

More gym teachers are exposing kids to fitness exercises and games, rather than repetitive drills or competitive team sports, with the hope that they'll find activities they enjoy, says Darla Castelli, associate professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, Austin. Of course, the ugly uniforms are mostly gone, too, replaced with shorts and T-shirts of the students' choice.

National physical-education standards, stressing regular physical activity, fitness and development of motor skills, were established in 1995 and updated in 2004 by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a 20,000-member professional group in Reston, Va. Many colleges and universities have been slow to train teachers in ways to teach fitness and wellness. Ms. Brant has picked up ideas by going to conferences. "I try to set an example," Ms. Brant says, by staying fit and demonstrating exercises herself. With pop music booming from speakers, Ms. Brant, a former college volleyball player wearing shorts and a polo shirt, moves among students during a recent gym class, urging them to get their heart rates into the target zone, laughing with them, applauding progress.

She even gives them homework—to record exercise in an "activity log," with a goal of 60 minutes a day. Lacy fills her 60 minutes by jumping on her family's trampoline or reading homework on a treadmill. "You get a two-fer that way," she says.

To ease middle-school girls' fixation on body image, teacher Andi McCarthy at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, a public school in Aurora, Colo., stresses improving muscle tone. "I tell them to put on their tightest pair of jeans tonight, then halfway through the year, put them on again," Ms. McCarthy says. If your jeans fit better, she tells them, you are improving your muscle tone.

She teaches 100 exercises for her students to choose from, from squats and curl-ups to lunges and stretches, and turns workouts into a game. Forming small groups, the students sometimes roll dice or draw playing cards to select the next exercise and number of repetitions. They also select the level of difficulty. This teaches kids to "train themselves and take ownership" of their workouts, Ms. McCarthy says. Her sixth-graders last year posted average increases of 17% in curl-ups and 24% in push-ups.

Finding ways to buy weights, machines and other workout gear slows change, many teachers say. Three-fourths of the 1,200 middle schools applying for fitness-program grants this year from Henkel Helps, a program from Henkel Corp., of Germany, have had budget cuts.

Ms. Brant has no budget for equipment. She spends about $400 a year out of her own pocket for Frisbees, balls and other gear and bought the heart monitors with $15,000 in grants from the Ball Brothers Foundation, of Muncie, Ind.

Payton Howell, a 14-year-old in Ms. Brant's class, took off 15 pounds last year—not by dieting, but by changing her exercise habits and cutting out soft drinks and "stuff like Twinkies," she says. She learned yoga and weight-lifting, increasing her bench press to 65 pounds from 45 pounds, and tripled her push-up and curl-up counts.

Completing her activity log, Payton got used to "running around for an hour and having fun" after school, she says. "I used to not be able to run very long. Now, I can run forever." She put up a volleyball net at home and plays with friends. "Mrs. Brant teaches things that stick with you for life," she says.

Source: Sue Shellenbarger, Taking the Dread Out of Phys Ed, The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2011.

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Last Updated : Sunday, August 23, 2020