Gym Class Memories and Your Whole Life and Everything (Plus Bonus Group Post)

Edit: There was a late week surge in interest regarding this topic so it has become a group post. My contribution is first.


Sam helpfully suggested someone blog about this article the headline of which reads:

Negative memories of gym class may last into adulthood

And to which I responded:

May? MAY?!

Gym class for me was a nightmare. I was a kid who had been driven to school for all my elementary years. The physical education program at that private school was, shall we say, minimal. I was not involved in sports of any sort. At the time, I don’t think my parents valued physical activity very much. They valued school and education and good behaviour. I was excellent at those things and I focussed on my strengths. So did they.

Consequently, and how could they know this at the time, I was set up to fail in middle school gym class. I was that kid who was picked last for the team, why wouldn’t I be? I was the kid who was afraid of the ball, who had poor coordination of my rapidly growing limbs, who thought she was ugly, who had boobs before everyone else. . .you name it.

The most striking part of this article for me is this quote:

“The most surprising thing about our research was the vividness of [memories and the] emotional impact. This tells us these were transformative experiences,” senior author Panteleimon Ekkekakis of Iowa State University in Ames told Reuters Health by phone.

People’s gym-class memories “had some degree of influence on their self-perception and … the degree of their sedentariness,” said Ekkekakis.

Vividness. My memories are vivid and full of “can’t”.

  • I can’t run fast
  • I can’t do a hand stand
  • I can’t do a cartwheel
  • I can’t do the splits
  • I can’t catch a baseball
  • I can’t do a flexed arm hang
  • I can’t do a push up

I only got a Participation Badge in the Participaction program. Yup, I’m bitter.

There is, however, some hope as the article goes on to say:

“We’re not saying the experiences are deterministic and that one negative experience is going to determine a person’s physical activity level for the rest of their life,” he said.

And they are correct. I eventually found that I enjoyed single person sports (skiing, horseback riding, biking, and yes, slow running). More importantly, I found environments and people to do these things with that were supportive and not derisive. But I also had a supportive family and a secure socio-economic environment so I was insulated from this experience. I suspect that a less privileged kid might not fare as well. That didn’t seem to be parsed out, at least in the news article.

The article also talks about the shifts in physical education over the years. Certainly, my daughter and son’s experiences were not as negative as mine. There was way more choice in activities, cooperation, support and a lot less shame. You got marks for trying hard, not being good. My daughter even took gym in grade 10. . .ELECTIVELY. I was shocked and proud of her. She enjoyed being physical during the day. It was fun and an easy good mark. There was no shame involved in her experience and that isn’t because she is the volley ball star. Also, her out gay teacher brought in her kitten, which she received from her partner instead of an engagement ring. I mean. . .!!!!!!! If that was my gym class, my vivd memories would be of kittens and good times in yoga. I was jealous and happy for her.

I think that gym class is so impactful because it deals with the body at a time in life where the body is a source of about a bazillion complex things. It’s growing in all the places, it represents your coming adulthood and gym class exposes the body and it’s capacities. If you are worried at all about it (and seriously, who isn’t), then you are vulnerable. Kids are vulnerable. Gym class isn’t ever a neutral experience and we should be so very mindful of that.

I still cannot do any of the things in the list with any facility. I can do 5 push-ups and I haven’t tried the flexed arm hang lately. I can’t do any of the other things at all. However, I don’t feel bad about that any more because of all the other good stuff I can do.

So there, gym class. You didn’t break me. Keep smartening up.

Raise your hand if you sucked at gym!

black and white 1930's era eight women about 15 years old lined up arms linked likely mid can-can style dancing
These girls were having some fun! I love their hair. I think I’ll get a cut like it tomorrow 🙂


My most vivid memory of gym class is this: When I was around 15, I got kicked out for wearing shorts and a t-shirt that didn’t match. Not wearing the gym uniform would have been forgivable, or so my gym teacher told me, as she escorted me from the gym. But apparently I had chosen to wear a t-shirt that clashed so appallingly — a bright red T worn with the purple uniform shorts—that my teacher couldn’t even tolerateme in class. At the time I was pretty proud of myself for that fashion criminality, because I didn’t like gym class and I took some pleasure in tweaking my teacher, who didn’t bother to hide the fact that she didn’t think much of my athletic abilities. Just for the record, I was fleet-ish as a kid, but would have required some encouragement.

I sometimes fantasize about an athletic competition with that gym teacher — me, at my current age and ability; and her, at her then-age and ability. I know that’s not the most generous thought. In fact, it might be one of my only revenge fantasies.


Early gym classes weren’t so bad. I loved my nun teachers and they taught me to jump rope and took us outside to play. I loved that they wore jeans and snowpants under their habits. I remember them laughing as we whooshed down the hill.

But serious gym class in late elementary school and beyond was awful. There were a lot of tears. The story was that I was clumsy and uncoordinated and not very good at sports. Stories are powerful. Other people started them but they became my stories.

I got a concussion running an obstacle course in grade 6 when I stood up too soon running through a metal tube. That resulted in a visit to hospital. I lost consciousness and threw up a lot. My parents carefully woke me up on the hour after I came home from hospital. That event fit the narrative and gym teachers stopped pushing after that.

I rode a bike. I loved ice skating and took figure skating lessons and swimming lessons. But I associated gym class with fitness tests and with team sports. Also with being chosen last. Over time I accepted the label of book worm and brainiac, since I was in the gifted class from grade 6 thru to grade 9. I signed myself out of gym class for “menstrual reasons” as much as possible.

Later after I came to love running, riding, weight lifting I even came to reconsider my loathing of team sports. It took awhile to get over gym class but I did it. I still get angry when I think about the childhood goods that I missed.


In school, my feelings about PE class varied considerably depending on what we were doing – I enjoyed basketball, I didn’t mind handball and football, and loathed athletics, dancing and volleyball. I loved swimming, because I swam in a club outside of school and was guaranteed to get good marks. But above all, it depended on the teacher. For years, I had one who loved all the things I hated, and made us play volleyball all the time. The pain on my forearms! And the misjudged distances that made me miss the ball because I have astigmatism and refused to wear glasses that might get smashed! In the summer, we’d have to run outside and she would stand in the shade, water bottle in hand, and shout “keep smiling!” as we shuffled along in the sun. I hated her, and I hated gym class with her. Luckily, I was able to practice sports outside of school that I actually enjoyed. I tried lots of things as a kid – gymnastics, badminton, you name it. Swimming stuck. But because I tried out so many things early in life, I’m still not scared of trying my hand at something new. I think if your only point of reference for what sports are like is gym class, it is very, very easy to be put off exercise for life. In that sense, where I grew up we were extremely lucky because there were lots of affordable outside options to do things that you weren’t necessarily taught at school, or taught badly.

Susan Again:

Thanks to my fellow bloggers who contributed their feelings and experiences. What resonates most for me about these contributions is the need for fun and playfulness instead of a focus on skills acquisition. All our skill in sport has come from liking what we are doing and all the disincentives seem to be about critique and technical achievement minus the love. Hopefully the science is catching up and best practices will continue to include fun and kittens. But maybe not kitten yoga. . .


Black and white artsy looking photo of a white woman with a fresh inverted bob style haircut with under cut
I did get the hair cut by the way


4 thoughts on “Gym Class Memories and Your Whole Life and Everything (Plus Bonus Group Post)

  1. Love the haircut! And, tiny added note–for me an all-girls summer camp was where I got to find what gym class lacked.

  2. That news article made me go “uh DUH?” How could gym class not have an effect? I have heard from teacher friends that they are shifting phys ed curriculum to be more inclusive about less about who is best at sports. Thank goodness!

  3. OH MY GOD SO RESONANT. (also, ace hair mate!)

    My take-away from these terrific reflections is about teachers. Notice the recurrence of “hate” when referring to them, and also the emphasis placed on teachers as a big part of the bad memories gym class bears. I have similar memories: I was not good at gym in all the same ways you all note, but my primary memory is of my middle school gym teacher, Mr Elgie. He was a dreadful man. Anyone who couldn’t do the exercises properly was a “retard”. (It was the 1980s, but STILL.) He mocked us ceaselessly. He was a small guy with obviously a lot of small-man syndrome. He took it out on us. I secretly believe he hated the smart kids in class the way high school jocks sometimes hate the brains because, well, they are insecure and don’t know how to cope with their insecurities. A lot of this is class privilege, to be sure (you’re more likely to be a brain if you come from a family that values books and study), but it’s also so much to do with how teachers model coping behaviours around insecurities and bodily confusion. And Mr Elgie’s model was a very poor one.

    What do education students training to be gym teachers learn? I’m hopeful from Susan’s notes on her daughter’s experience that they are more and more learning to model body positivity and strong, resilient ways to face our insecurities. But it’s the question mark for me around the people who taught me gym in the 1980s and early 1990s. My sense is they got little/not good training, and were sent to wreak havoc on students with probably not much more in the way of coping skills than they had.

Comments are closed.