Public School Gym Class Needs a Serious Reform, and Here’s Why

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Listen, I’m the first to admit that the general high school curriculum has merit to it. Even the notoriously less-enjoyable classes like mathematics and history have worthiness to them. On top of covering course material we’re bound to find helpful in the future, these classes also give us an opportunity to experience problem-solving, critical thinking, and working in group settings. I may not have enjoyed sitting in an eighty-degree room surrounded by stinky pubescent boys, but at least I know how to calculate a tip off the top of my head now. Thanks, Mrs. Hill!

There is one particular class, however, that I have never been able to wrap my head around. Physical Education (we’ll just call it gym class, because that’s a more accurate description), is undoubtedly one of the most concerning classes I have ever been subjected to in my twelve years at public school. And, believe me, it’s not just an “me” problem. Studies by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Penn State University, and Associates Press (just to name a few) have shown that a considerable amount of students feel that their gym class experience is both aimless and unpleasant (NBC). Time and time and time again, it has been argued that gym teachers are only focused on winning, not health. Have you ever sat down with a student and received a truly convincing response about the health benefits they obtained from their gym class?

Furthermore, a gym class can be a breeding ground for shame and self-deprecation. The general atmosphere, attitude, and activities linked to gym classes are heavily dependent on competition and championship. In my personal experience, gym class is nearly impossible to forget about, and not for positive reasons. To put this into perspective, I am a junior in college. I graduated from high school nearly two years ago. And still, I find myself thinking about this particular issue on a weekly basis. Each day in which I found myself compared and graded against other students only further destroyed my delicate self-confidence during my most developmental years. You’d think the process of being “picked” for an irrelevant basketball game is something only seen in film and television, but you couldn’t be more wrong. More often than not, I found myself hiding in the locker room with a book in my lap to avoid the humiliation of being picked last. There isn’t a more glamorous way to phrase it: we are being academically judged for how competitively we play games with the same kids who tease us about our bodies and our social groups. Remember how fun gym class was in elementary school? Man, I loved the parachute game. The reason gym class becomes more and more painful for students each year is because we are beginning to undergo extreme physical and emotional changes in our bodies. Though it’s predominantly kept hush-hush, cyberbullying is rampant in the world of a middle or high school-aged teenager. According to Bullying Statistics, over half of all adolescents report having been bullied online (Cyberbullying Research Center). You’d be naive to assume it doesn’t happen in our small, microaggressive community. What may be an attractive, entertaining class for one student is bound to be traumatizing for another, including a young girl such as myself. Gym class is fuel for the “favored” students to learn judgment, power, and dominance. The block of time we have dedicated to this class period is not only an unwise use of funds and resources, but is also ineffective for the people forced into it.

Let’s talk about the standardized tests issued in physical education classes, why don’t we? The Mile Run was a sad excuse to make me feel less capable than my fellow peers. The pacer test was nothing more than a platform for the star athletes to “make an example” for the kids like me, who weren’t necessarily out of shape, but were still incapable of completing a test that had no real goal or reason. It doesn’t take a health specialist to confirm that most of the students aren’t putting in a driven effort to lose weight (Metaxas.) What’s the real physical health benefit of jogging around the field nervously and only speeding up when I see my teacher’s eyes glaring into mine? Just burn off that hotdog I had for lunch?

What I am offering we bring to the table (or the court, I guess), is not a complete elimination of the modern physical education structure.  After all, for the naturally competitive students who enjoy playing dodgeball for ninety minutes, gym class might be one of their most cherished classes of the day. If you fall into that category, good for you! Additionally, I also quite like the fact that our school introduced yoga and pilates into the curriculum; whoever arranged for that, good for you! Give yourself a pat on the back for that one. That being said, in 2018, we need to give our students more than one option to fulfill their physical education needs. I didn’t even know that I liked working out until after I graduated high school. It took me twelve years of my life, twelve years of constantly hiding in locker room bathroom stalls to discover that I actually enjoyed running on the treadmill, unbothered by my fellow classmates. I also, like many similar-minded people, discovered that I enjoyed digitally tracking my exercise and weight-loss progress. I was able to physically move my body in a way that made me feel comfortable and excited, and, furthermore, I was not being judged competitively against classmates who had completely different bodies and physical abilities than me. There are countless FREE apps available for iPhones, Androids, and PCs that offer nutrition, exercise, weight loss, and overall health tracking at your fingertips. These apps include (but are not limited to) MyFitnessPal, YAZIO, MyPlate, Fitbit, Fooducate, Charity Miles, Nike+ Training Club, Fitness Buddy, and StrongLifts 5×5. Many high schools have graciously invested in entire weight lifting rooms for those students who don’t have access to their own gyms and still want to track their fitness. As I said, these apps are specifically designated for tracking fitness and progress, so if a student did elect to “independently study” gym, their gym instructor could easily and reliably check their progress on the app to make sure they were actually following through with their goals.

Below, I have included some anonymous quotes from friends and peers who share similar views on this subject. I hope that, even if no change is brought to the issue, you will consider observing the subject from a different point of view, and take something away from what we have to say about the quality of our education.

“One time, my hair got caught in the pulley system for belaying someone. I was the anchor when our coach knew I was too small for the part. I nearly had all my hair ripped out, and was only safe from flying up in the air when two football players had to hold me down.” -female,  age 20

“The main problem with gym class is their ‘one size fits all’ approach to classes. They need to set the bar lower so that even the least athletic students can pass. It just ends up not being a challenge for most of the class and wastes their time.” -male, age 21

“It’s inconvenient and impractical to have to change my clothes in the middle of the day, and then stress about changing back to get to class on time.” -female, age 21

“One time I was changing, and a girl stole my bra. I, of course, was wearing a light, see-through shirt, and everyone saw my nipples in gym class. And then I remember [the coach] told me I was inappropriate because the boys could see my nipples. I told her someone stole my bra, and she didn’t believe me.” -female, age 21

“I just hid in the bathroom every gym class.” -female, age 18

“Gym is the living embodiment of everything wrong with high school. It’s forced embarrassment and unnecessary comparison, and does nothing to help the people who need it (the unhealthy and unfit), and instead reinforces the importance of athletics and their ‘alpha’ ideals.” -male, age 21

“Being in my gym class made me feel like I was on a humiliating social scaffold. Exercise is important, but trying to promote it in a judgment-based class setting does more damage than good. At a time in my life where I already felt extremely vulnerable, my gym class made me feel even worse about myself and my body. Ultimately, it made me feel like those who were more athletically talented were more deserving of praise and acceptance.” -female, 19

“”Physical exercise is super important, but there has to be a better way to do it. Especially when it comes to the presidential fitness exam.” -male, age 26

“Physical activity is important, and it sucks that gym class is done in such a way that makes most kids hate it.” -male, age 20

“I was one of the only freshmen in my class, and they were all seniors. As someone who has always had a very unique body, and a very large chest area, I constantly felt like people were watching me, and most times, I was correct. It was not a great introduction to high school, and it made me feel even more body conscious than ever before. Also, I had it as my third class of the day, and we weren’t allowed to shower after, so I would be sweaty and nasty all day long.” -female, age 20

“I’ve never had a good experience in any gym classes I’ve encountered in high school, so because of that, I decided to try and work on an alternative free block in place of my normal curriculum with my school’s guidance office. My idea was to implement a private study where students like myself (who have absolutely no interest playing pickleball with sweaty teenagers) could choose in place of the normal curriculum. Private studies would include classes like yoga, or in my case, just an hour block that could be spent at a local gym. I feel like students should be able to have the choice on how they choose to get their physical exercise, and with a private study, it makes it more accessible to those with social anxieties or just an interest in working towards fitness that matters.” -non binary, 18

After conducting a digital poll, ninety-two percent of contributors agree that independent study gym should be offered as an option for students.

Works Cited

Cyberbullying Research Center, “Summary of our cyberbullying research from 2004-2010”

Metaxas, Luke Richard. “Gym Class: A Waste of Time and Resources?” The Pennsylvania State University Presidential Leadership Academy.

“So Just How Bad Is Your Child’s Gym Class?” NBC, Associated Press.



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