Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on Exercise

This is the response I gave to an article on Canada's new physical activity guidelines that I read on the Obesity Panacea website:

I really think the whole "problem" begins when children enter school and have to take phys ed. I am totally in favour of physical education in our schools throughout both primary and secondary school, however I think that almost immediately, kids realize that they are either "good" at phys ed or "bad" at it and that no matter how hard they try, kids who are not natural athletes will be made fun of and get low marks in this subject. From an early age, many people are therefore totally turned off physical activity, seeing it as something they just can't do well and therefore don't want to do.

Although it has been many years since I was in a gym class, I still remember how pathetic I felt compared to the other kids. I was short, dumpy and slow. I was hopeless, whether I was running, jumping hurdles, climbing ropes or swimming lengths. Of course, I was the last to be chosen for any team sports. My marks in phys ed were pretty abysmal though I was often at or near the top of the class in the academic subjects. Needless to say, I got out of phys ed the minute it was no longer mandatory.

Fast forward several decades to the discussion I had with my teenage son the other day. He is in Gr. 12 and after having dropped phys ed the moment he could do so (he too is amazingly athletically ungifted, minus the dumpiness), he is now taking it again. Why? Because he now goes to a very small, private school that is essentially composed of nerds. Although his forte lies with the pure sciences and math, he enjoys his phys ed classes because they are very small and the kids have no particular talent for athletics. They just enjoy moving and working up a sweat. He told me that he would never have taken gym classes again in the public system because it was very clear that only gifted athletes were welcome.

Doesn't this sound like "health club" culture? So many ordinary people avoid going to the gym like the plague because they feel they will be looked down on by all those toned gym bunnies. People have the love of movement drummed out of them by a culture that only recognizes elite athletes as being of any worth. They don't realize that taking a good walk every day is worthwhile, that taking public transit can be part of one's exercise routine. It's "them" (the gym bunnies or even the guys who are PhD candidates in kinesiology, ie. the guys who were welcomed onto the team when they were at high school) against "us", the ordinary shlubs whose stomachs will never be flat, no matter how many crunches we do.

By the time the current school system has finished with kids it's too late. The best thing we could do for Canadians would be to eliminate the jock culture from the minute kids arrive at school, make phys ed mandatory for everyone, right up to high school graduation and give a simple pass/fail mark based ONLY on participation. The more athletically gifted could have their own classes, just like the kids who excel in art, science or music.

Today, I do what I can to remain active despite hereditary arthritis. But it's because I've really given the issue some thought and decided to try my best and put aside the deep feelings of athletic inferiority that were instilled in me as a child.

P.S. I looked for an appropriate picture to accompany this post, but decided against using one. Virtually all the photos showed "fit", slim people and the cartoons often featured "fat slobs". The stereotypes continue unabated.


  1. Hi,
    I was educated in Québec. Physical Education was mandatory up to CEGEP (which is college) and it was co-ed. I was never good at Phys. Ed. HOWEVER, I had really supportive teachers. My main problem was that I never understood the rules. When I got glasses when I was 14 years old, I was terrified to break them (because my mom did not have much money to replace them if the broke) so I played the sports without them and could not see most of what was going on. That being said, I survived. Yes, it does suck. I think everyone should get an A+ in Phys. Ed just for showing up. It should be based on attendence, not skills.

  2. Yes! My phys ed classes (in the US) were pass-fail, or at least you got an A just for showing up. But I still hated them for the other reasons you point out.

    It was only when I went to a geeky college and we were required to take a year of gym but got to pick the classes, that I learned to love physical activity. No more team sports was the key. :)

  3. Beautiful post! Sad, too. The human body, essentially an animal form, is a marvel. Exquisite in its capability to direct motions that are both self comforting and useful.

    Rather horrifying to me that there are classes (for our children!) which institutionalize a painful, years-long process, which so often succeeds in stripping away all the joy from moving one's body (stretching, turning, reaching, balancing, breathing deeply, and so forth). It could be instead a relaxing, rejuvinating, celebratory learning process that we come to anticipate happily as a way of caring for ourselves.

    But I guess that approach would make *sissies* out of children? :::SIGH::: Or maybe it would help them develop into more sensitive, happy people...

    Now that could be subversive. Revolutionary.

    Hey, I can dream. :) I still tell myself the mother ship is coming for me any day now.


  4. Great post! I'm Canadian as well, and my daughter is a gifted athlete and my son is uncoordinated and a bit nerdy. It's funny how the teachers treat them - my daughter has always had preferential treatment in school. Cheers, Rick