Thursday, July 14, 2016


Mandatory Gym Class? No, Thanks.

Exercise is good for you.  It improves physical health, and even improves cognition.  It can improve mental health, in some cases.  

So, should we require gym class in college?

Karen Costa outlined a thoughtful argument that we should.  She noted that phys ed requirements are less common than they once were, but in some ways, more necessary than they’ve ever been.  Ours is an increasingly sedentary society, due to jobs that have moved inside.  So, should we mandate gym class?

At the risk of seeming curmudgeonly, I’m going with “no.”  And it’s not because I reject the benefits of exercise.  I agree that it has real benefits; that’s why I drag myself out of bed at dark o’clock three mornings a week to go to the gym before work.  (Sometimes I wonder about the cost/benefit of lost sleep vs. missed exercise, but that’s another post.)  If nothing else, it at least makes me feel like I’m trying.  

So no, I’m not some sort of exercise “truther.”  I just don’t believe in gym requirements in college.

One college at which I worked had a health and wellness requirement, so I’ve seen it in action.  Students were open, even brazen, in their attempts to minimize or evade it.  Scheduling was a nightmare, given how small the classes had to be.  Anything strenuous enough to have benefits required major facilities; anything that didn’t require facilities wasn’t strenuous enough to matter.  And that’s before discussing the different kinds of student bodies we have: some disabled, some older, some with childcare obligations, some who could only come at night.  Now we have online students.  

Transfer is a major issue.  If the destination four-year schools don’t require it, we don’t want to saddle students with the cost in both time and money.  

In my own undergrad days, I had a phys ed requirement, and even had to pass a swim test.  The latter was just mean; the former was silly.  I got through the requirement as quickly as humanly possible so I could get back to determining my own exercise.  (Admittedly, the requirement gave me one good story.  I took a unit called “beginning hiking and camping.”  We had to hike Mount Greylock.  The class was taught in the early Fall, when the leaves were starting to change.  Near the top, as we paused to look at the view, my friend Steve Winger said “This is really different from high school.  In high school, the coach would be yelling ‘Winger!  Get your hand out of your ass and enjoy the goddamned scenery!’”  I’m not saying I’ve quoted that on family trips, but I’m not denying it, either.)  And don’t even get me started on the K-12 version.  

Leaving autobiography aside, though, I’ve never seen a shred of data to indicate that students at schools with phys ed or health and wellness requirements are healthier than students at schools without them.  I’d be surprised if they were, given how assiduously students minimized the impact of the requirement.  We have assessment data showing that, say, English composition classes improve student writing.  Do we have data showing that a health and wellness class requirement improves student health?  If so, I’ve never seen it.

Even if we did, at a really basic level, the argument that “it’s good for you, so it should be mandatory” is potentially infinite.  Eating your vegetables is good for you, but we don’t monitor students’ diets.  Church attendance has been shown to have positive effects, but requiring that at a public institution would raise issues better left unraised.  Midafternoon naps are good for you, but we don’t supply cots.  Voting is desirable, but we don’t mandate that.  At some point, we have to respect students’ freedom.  Bodily integrity strikes me as a good place to start.

We can’t require everything that’s good.  We have limited resources, students have limited time, and we have to respect a diversity of students and student needs.  That means saying “no” to some things.  I’m happy to support the idea of colleges having fitness centers on campus, and I don’t even mind charging staff a membership fee for them.  But assuming that a mandatory health or phys ed class will be a gain across the board flies in the face of evidence, experience, and common sense.  The requirement has faded away for a reason.  Let’s focus on what we’re good at, and let students make their own choices about their bodies.

There's this:

Studies younger people than you have attending, I'll grant…
Better that they learn not to chase that Pokey Man in traffic. ;-) I hope I've saved some lives by teaching about momentum and impulse as it pertains to seat belts. Reducing the impact to "merely" 50 times the acceleration of gravity is the difference between life and death.

They abolished the undergrad phys ed requirement about a year or so after I started, but not before I got an anecdotal outcomes assessment story. One kid in the class was morbidly obese. (Less common then than today.) Could barely do anything at first, but actually lost weight and got in shape. I could see his attitude change as well. Three years later I saw his name again: he had just won the conference heavyweight wrestling championship. Unreal. Thanks for reminding me of it!
My undergrad school had a gym requirement that could be met by taking two gym classes or one health class. I took the health class because I wanted to leave more room in my schedule for other classes. In retrospect I wish I had done some of the gym classes instead (rock climbing! ballroom dancing!), but I agree that they shouldn't be required.

This post also reminded me of a news story I read recently about a school that required students to wear a fitbit (I didn't remember which one, but the Internet tells me it's Oral Roberts). That seems horrifying and makes gym requirements look tame in comparison!
The scheduling issue is real. Canoeing is the only class I got an A+ in, and to grab a space I had to have all the senority of an extra semester senior. Even then, I'd I could've gotten Japanese tea ceremony I would've taken that instead.

That said, my CC made students take a class to use the gym. On the plus side, that meant financial aid covered the tuition but you didn't pay if you didn't use it. On the minus side, you had to schedule the orientation and log your visits. It probably ensured against unused gym memberships and wasn't that much of a hassle. If you were going to require a fitness class, I'd argue you have to have at least one entirely self scheduled option like that.
I also think we've got a religious obligation to ensure people know how to swim, but even I thought it was a weird college level requirement when I first heard about it.
First semester of freshman year had a PE requirement for everybody. It was one of the most rewarding courses I ever had. It was mostly a one or two week introduction to a variety of sports activities - a week of tennis, a week of soccer, wrestling, fencing, handball, dodge ball - a whole spectrum of team and individual sports. I learned the back stroke there. I fell in love with one of those sports and I continued to pursue it up to the tournament level, and keeping fit enough for that for these last fifty years has probably been of more benefit to my well-being than anything else I could name. I realize this anecdote doesn’t directly address the present day requirement issue, but if any college still has the goal of well-rounded graduates (the whole strong mind in a strong body thing) then I feel that any institution that drops the requirement is diminished.
Winger and I had the same coach.

It's like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.

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