Requiring physical activity classes helps sedentary college students be more active but will it ruin their lives?

Lots of us here on the blog have written about mandatory physical education turning us off exercising for a very long time. See here. Also here.

Sally had the strongest language, How Gym Class Ruined My Life. Hence, the title of this post.

We all professed relief when mandatory physical education came to an end.

So I was surprised to see this story make its way across my newsfeed. “When physical activity classes were required, university students not only got more active, their attitude also changed – they were more motivated to stay active in the future.”

When it was required at university students were more motivated. Really. Well, that’s what the study shows.

What do I think about requiring Phys Ed at university?

First, as a university administrator, generally I’m a fan of breadth requirements. Teach the engineers to write and to appreciate art. Make the artists take math. We should all know some economics, some basic science, introductory philosophy, and read really good books. I know there are limits but at the undergrad level I like the idea of well-roundedness. 

Second, I used my own tuition waiver as a graduate student to take PE classes for credit. I’m not sure I would be as comfortable in the weight room as I am now without my B in Fundamentals of Weight Training. I learned to deadlift from the Illinois Drug Free Collegiate Deadlifting champion. I also took Intro to Sailboat Racing to learn to sail small dinghies and use Northwestern’s lasers. Fun times. 

But still, students are adults. Maybe they should get to choose? But if I’m okay making them take a second language why not make them take gym? I guess my paternalism has limits. Its scope is university education, not leading a good life overall. I mean maybe they’d all benefit from a class on relationship skills. That might be true but I don’t think I’d require it, even I ran the zoo (to quote Dr. Seuss). 

What do you think? How would you have felt being forced to take Phys Ed at university/college? 


Image description: Women doing yoga, downward dog with one leg raised high, on hardwood floors, on yoga mats, view partly obscured by green fronds. 
Photo by Rima Kruciene on Unsplash

10 thoughts on “Requiring physical activity classes helps sedentary college students be more active but will it ruin their lives?

  1. It depends entirely on what’s on offer. I found that what made middle- and high-school phys ed so awful was the regimentation, the limited activity options, and the strangely high frequency of bullying behavior, none of which I’d expect to find in a decent-sized college’s programs.

  2. Noooooooooo! Someone I love once said, “the only thing I learned in gym class was that you don’t actually die from embarrassment.” I am right with them on this one. In high school, I always faced gym class with dread. Not having to endure it was one of the things that made me look forward to going to university.

  3. I loved having PE courses in college. The “written” curriculum was written by the health promotion/public health department and focused on healthy eating, mindfulness, stress reduction, and general wellness. We had so many fun options to pick from- I never would have learned to ski if I didn’t take it for PE. I also took yoga and a nutrition course. Some of my friends had rock climbing, dance, weightlifting, SCUBA, and surfing. I loved the variety and how it encourages students to try new activities.

  4. So, I waited an hour to write my response because I felt very negative toward reading that other academics think that the course I teach shouldn’t be required. However, I want instead to be open minded to other’s opinions. I teach a required PE course at the university I work at. It’s required of all students at all UNC schools and takes a different form at each university. I know because this is my second university to teach it at. In my current position the course is a 2 credit hour class that meets twice weekly for 50 minutes and then has online components. The title of the course is Physical Activity and Wellness and we cover physical activity in the class meetings and wellness content in the online component of the course. This course is so much more than skills and drills and we offer a variety of options for which “activity” a student may choose to participate in. I currently teach Fitness Walking, Walk to Jog, and Functional Training. I will soon also be teaching Pilates and Backyard Bootcamp at the Beach. (We also offer adapted PE options and accommodations for all. I had a pregnant student complete my course last semester while having a baby mid-semester.) Despite the sometimes catchy names, we address more than just doing the “activity” when we meet each week. I teach my students about injury prevention, proper breathing, progression, recovery, nutrition/hydration etc. We talk about the basics of fitting more activity into your daily life and how each choice they make in life is impacting their overall health and wellness. When I start each semester I tell them that I teach that class because I think it’s important for them to take charge of their own bodies at this point in their life….they don’t want to be 40 and being told by their doctor that they need to exercise or else. I tell them that my reason for being active is to make sure that I stay independent for as long as I can in my life. I think there’s more to this type of class (especially with the right teacher) than just lifting weights. WE (in my classes) talk about the impact of college life on their bodies and minds and how each thing happening in their life is impacted by their participation in health and wellness activities. One of the schools in NC offers a program called 8 at State in which you earn a reward for taking an activity course each semester of your 4 years. Our schools either require or offer these classes to benefit the whole person well-being of our students. That’s a life long lesson that is as good as economics in my book.

    1. Right. I think it depends on whether we think of the university as educating the whole person or just the intellect. Some of the courses, including the one you teach, sound terrific. And I wish I’d taken them. But I am still not sure about requiring it. Thanks, by the way, for waiting before replying! Want to write a blog post on the case for mandatory PE at university? I think it would be terrific and I’d like to her more about your perspective. Message me?

      1. I don’t always use 40 as my benchmark and apologize if that offended anyone. I just turned 38 yesterday and don’t think of 40 as a negative age. More so I discuss how inactivity over the course of your lifetime can lead to many different health and wellness issues. Sometimes I phrase it as 10 years after you leave here, do you want to be told that your choice to remain inactive has had negative effects? Or would you rather set yourself up for the best life you can have now; make it a routine and avoid the health problems? I have had many non-traditional students in my class and we still discuss the way their life choices have brought them to this class and how necessary it is at any age to learn how to take care of yourself in all aspects of wellness.

  5. As is so often the case, there is no easy answer to this. I like the idea of making it optional, BUT…I can’t help worrying that a school with only enthusiasts & natural athletes in its gym program might offer less choices that could appeal to those of us who are not exactly born (competitive) athletes. I loved being able to take gymnastics in college, with no need to have to have any particular level of coordination or flexibility.

    This blog could have been designed with me in mind. I started getting in seriously good shape at about age 48, and am now a 66 year old cyclist who has ridden across North America, and has ridden all sorts of (mile, not kilometer) century rides, and who runs some, strength trains, does yoga, takes dance classes. But when I was a kid, I was always the last one chosen for a team. I’ve always been strong and reasonably energetic, but never coordinated, never found that game skills came naturally to me.

    So having a department that must make room for all the rest of us might be of considerable value. Maybe the thing to talk about is how to handle what is required, how to make it work for everyone, rather than whether it should be required. Onegirlbreathing’s comment goes nicely in that direction.

  6. I’m on the no side. I agree universities should require a well rounded education, but pe options should fall into one bucket with various options.

    Otherwise the assumption is all students are generally young and able bodied if they are required to participate in a pe program.

  7. I loved PE classes in college. I took several years of ballet, intro tap dancing and a modern dance workshop. I also marched in high school and college marching band as a flag girl, so I admit I was all about doing fun physical activity in school. But I’ve also taught a PE class at my uni recently– a cycling class. It was required of some majors and not everyone was happy doing it. One thing that would help would be to staff PE classes properly– I had 13 students on bikes, and one of me, which made riding on the road not easy to do; I had to assign an experienced student to be the sweep.
    I’m on the fence about requirements; I’d rather the schools make it easy and provide lots of incentives for students to do this, and also get buy in from academic depts so it’s part of advising. Again, not in a coercive way, but an encouraging way.

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