Forced gym makes kids hate exercise

All forced education is bad for kids because it tells them that they’re too stupid to pick out what they’re interested in, and too dull to depend on their curiosity.

But there’s a unique problem with forcing kids to go to gym class.  It ruins kids’ self‑esteem in different ways than other types of forced education. Here are four ways:

1. Violent sports terrify a lot of kids.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that schools do not have dodgeball as part of the gym curriculum, but a majority of schools continue to have dodgeball because the loudest kids clamor for it, and the American Athletic Association doesn’t have any legislative authority.

Stories abound about how kids get hurt in dodgeball, but also how kids hide in the corner because they’re so scared of getting hit.

Even though experts know there’s no place for such a violent sport in public school, we continue to not only offer it, but force kids to participate in it.

2. Rigorous athletics are too rigorous for overweight kids.
Half the kids in schools are overweight.  We could debate this and I would fall on the side of how sending kids to school creates weight problems because school is largely sedentary, but I’m not going to debate it.  I’m just going to link to a study that shows that kids who sit in school are day are at risk for health issues associated with sedentary behavior.

What I want to talk about now is that many kids need rigorous exercise in order to focus during the rest of the day, but since other kids are overweight, they will be physically ill from that much exercise.  No surprise that the idea of kids needing a customized education is not just intellectual, but also physical.

Schools in Illinois acknowledge this problem by separating the fat kids into fat gym.  I don’t need to tell you how insanely detrimental this is for the kids in fat gym, but there is really no difference between separating kids into fat gym or stupid math.

Segmenting kids teaches them to focus on their deficits instead of their strengths, which is pointless when we know from countless workplace studies that people are better off focusing on their strengths and not worrying about their weaknesses, except to steer clear of them in their work.

3. Gym uniforms undermine self-esteem.
As kids get older they sweat in gym, and it’s not appropriate for them to take gym class in their street clothes.  The idea that girls going through puberty have to put on shorts that they would never dream of wearing to school is torture.

All the boys see them, and the girls end up spending hours each week picking their clothes for school because it makes them so anxious, but when they get to gym class, they have no control.  This only teaches girls to hate gym and hate exercise and waste time at school worrying about their bodies.

And it takes so long to change into gym clothes and then back into street clothes that most kids get about eight minutes of exercise in gym class.

4. Gym class encourages disdain for exercise.
Forced gym has been shown to make kids dislike exercise more than no gym at all.  Kids who don’t have any gym yearn for exercise during the day and they generally know what they like, team sports or individual sports, rigorous or methodical.  There’s all kinds of exercise and each of us yearns for a different type.

Kids who are forced to do a certain type of exercise generally dislike exercise in the same way that kids who are forced to learn a certain way that’s not appropriate to them start to hate learning.

The biggest culprit of exercise that leads to disdain for exercise are team sports.  Very few people are born with a natural competitive instinct required to be a good member in a team sport.  Forced gym is like all other kinds of forced learning in that you start with somebody who is excited and you kill the excitement in them.

So looking at it from the perspective of gym class, it’s clear that appropriate exercise for one kid is inappropriate for another kid.  Sometimes it takes looking at something as obvious and clear as gym class to understand why something more complicated like chemistry also kills the excitement of students forced to learn it.

Some people will say the solution is more sensitive gym teachers, and some people will say the solution is to do away with gym as kids get older.  All these discussions of course will just be stand in for the real discussion which is that gym class is another reason why you should take kids out of school.


26 replies
  1. Julie
    Julie says:

    Yes, yes and yes! I think fully half of the reason my daughter hated school was gym. I wish they ran PE like a health club. Everyone would just be required to do something. The aggressive kids who need team sports could sign up for the dodgeball league and the kids who want to listen to a book on tape while they do the treadmill could do that. Really, gym would be one thing that schools could customize if they cared to, especially beyond elementary school. The PE teacher could function more as a personal trainer/advisor.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    talking about team sports, forcing kids to work in teams that they didn’t pick themselves (even picking teams is really a crappy process when in school) just teaches them to not work hard because they can’t control what they get out of it.

    Really, is it so hard to say “pick a team if you want, I have a scale to score a team, and work by yourself if you want, I have a different scale”?

    It’s ridiculous if the kid cares for her grades and it’s ridiculous if they don’t care because it reinforces the idea that, whatever, they don’t need to do anything.

    Has anyone watched the movie “Accepted”?

    Essentially it’s about a made up University that accepts anyone and the students get to pick whatever they want to learn. They have a blast and finish school with a fake diploma.

    When I first watched it I was just out of high school and thought the movie was stupid. I’ve gone from “ridiculous movie” to “well, that was brilliant.”

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        OMG! it’s awesome!!!

        Everyone needs to take a look at it!

        I’ve been thinking all last week “how can I do something like xyz???”

        Then I went to that website and they had a link to Accredible.

        Love it!

        • Lizarino
          Lizarino says:

          It is awesome! I’m glad you like it too…. once you mentioned that movie I thought you might!! :)

          • Joy
            Joy says:

            College Plus is similar, but you will graduate with a “real” degree. They help you CLEP and earn credit in nontraditional ways. I have a friend whose homeschooled son will graduate at 18 with his high school AND college diplomas. His choice too, I might add. Then he plans to go to trade school and learn plumbing and electrical work. I predict he’ll own his own company well before the age of 30, and do very well with it.

  3. Anon
    Anon says:

    I completely forgot how horrible my junior high gym class was! There were always bullies in my junior high girls’ locker room, there were no private areas for changing, and we were NOT ALLOWED to change in the toilet stalls for privacy. (“Hey everyone, _________ doesn’t wear a bra!”) Maybe this is why Abercrombie can sell lacey bras and panties to tweens. High school was surprisingly better because by then I was on the swim team and used to stripping down in front of other girls, gym was co-ed and the interaction with boys made the girls less rude, and I got to skip PE during swim season.

    Also, we women fret about working out during lunch and getting showered and re-made after our lunchtime workout. In junior high and high school, you’re forced to go to another class immediately after a sweaty workout!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh my gosh, you totally reminded me of another PE horror: sitting on the sidelines in gym when you have your period. How can it be that school is set up so girls have to make a formal announcement to the boys that they have their period???


      • Anon
        Anon says:

        I forgot about that, too! Ugh.

        Also, I’m really excited that you responded to my first ever comment on your blog. (I’m new to the homeschooling blog, but have been following your career blog since 2008 or 2009.)

  4. Alicia Brown
    Alicia Brown says:

    Your first paragraph really strikes me. As a kid, I remember wanting to learn more than what I was taught in school. I knew there was so much more out there, but I didn’t know what it was or how to find or learn it.
    Do you find that your kids don’t have this block now that you are homeschooling them? Or do you teach them how to find things to learn?

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      I unschool my boys and I found that they kinda of know what they want to learn, because they do what gives them passion-pleasure. It’s so much easier now to know more about say “programming” (boys ;)), when you search on YouTube or Google. You find musem with Game design exhibition, you find YouTube tutorial on programming, programming software and PewDiePie ;). Alicia you would have figure it out if you would had the time for it. Always follow our bliss!

  5. Lizarino
    Lizarino says:

    Not only did we have to wear these P.E. “uniforms” in my high school, but it was also co-ed. I was knocked out and lost consciousness by an overly aggressive boy when it was the month of “basketball”. I am a very athletic person and liked to “play with the boys”, this boy was driving to the basket and I went to block and he drove his shoulder right into my chin essentially knocking me out. The P.E. teacher (who had to have been at least 95 years old) seemed shaken and just asked if I was ok and had me sit on the bleachers for the rest of the time. Not cool.

  6. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    My daughter will be in 8th grade this fall. She has been homeschooled since Kindergarten. I decided that I ought to look into what the public high school had to offer, just to be sure she wouldn’t be missing out on anything that I can’t provide for her. What did I find out? She’d lose out in nearly every subject, including PE. She would, first of all, be required to take only one semester of PE. Second of all, it would be PE, which would be like you describe, so it might or might not include tennis (which she takes through our homeschool co-op, with an actual tennis coach, not a PE teacher), and it definitely won’t include horseback riding, which is the sport she hopes to compete in at the college level. So… PE was part of our decision to homeschool high school.

  7. Bird
    Bird says:

    So right, it kills me.

    Wish I could have spent that time developing a yoga practice. Or dancing, or walking, or riding my bike.

    It took a high school boyfriend who decided I was going to run with him and bought me shoes and a YMCA membership to convince me I could run. Years of Presidential Physical Fitness testing, and coming in last on The Mile, really crushed something in me. He got me started slowly, promised zero humiliation, gave me major encouragement, and it worked. Few things about senior year were as satisfying as running a decent mile, but it took a lot to get me there – namely, someone who wanted me there with him, not someone trying to fix me. (He was trying to quit smoking, had loved track, and wanted someone to coach. It didn’t take long before I surprised myself, but he got me over a major barrier.) I still can’t respond to someone trying to fix me.

    For some, gym class was the only place where they were spared humiliation. Everybody needs different things. Some kids make it through life because of what they get from team sports. The solution isn’t tracks; as always, it’s more choices and relationships.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Running the mile really crushed me, too. I pretty much just can’t do it. But I always felt like there was something wrong with me. No one ever explained to me that there are fast-twitch people and slow-twitch-people and I’m fast-twitch so I’m good at volleyball. It’s such an easy way to adapt sports for kids but no one does that in school.


      • Tommy
        Tommy says:

        I have to disagree with every sentence in this. Physical Education unfortunately has a lot of people who take the job because “they get to wear shorts to school.” You can’t blame the class but the people in charge. OK, so the uniforms we’re embarrassing to wear, there are a lot of things in life that give that feeling and terrible sense of insecurity. But what about the type of children like me in school? I was raised by a hard working family, I was more than respectable in all my classes and was a shy kid. I was diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. I never got in trouble and was liked by all my classmates and teachers, my teachers didn’t like my grades as much as me unfortunately. Everyone points the finger at PE and how terrible it is. SCHOOL for me was embarrassing!! I always felt nervous and unintelligent. It’s not that I was a dumb kid; I just had a hard time listening to people speaking but it was something that I had to do. Fortunately, I had classes like PE and music where I excelled. It was a release for me. Coaches saw my potential and saw how bright of a child I really was. I got my undergrad degree in Music and I’m not currently getting my masters in PE. People struggle in life.. Thats the way it goes. I had every teacher in the world telling me that college wasn’t for me and to not even attend! But look where I am now. I wish I could wear some stupid uniform to math class or social studies and get a passing grade. I had hours upon hours of extra help, tutors and suport classes which made me feel like a dumb kid. I think that all you people are doing are re-living your pasts and assuming that physical education is a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing and for the future kids in my care, they’re so lucky to have a teacher like me who’s going to show them the fun and love behind physical activity. Every struggle in life only makes you a stronger person for overcoming it. You guys should know how ridiculous you sound complaining because you had to wear a uniform. Give me a break. Children are designed to be active and its terrible that you’re saying they don’t need PE.

        • Jack Hill
          Jack Hill says:

          Tommy, Gym Class was the best 40 mins of the day, you get too relieve all your stress and just kick around a ball for a period. Team sports were the best! All you need is one leader to show how much fun it is, then boom its the most intense class of the day. Playing capture the flag or softball or boys vs girls dodge ball, theres nothing better! Trunk forgot about all the kids that love sports or being active or aren’t the best in school. This article is very biased. Also the benefits of gym class are huge!

  8. Heather
    Heather says:

    I’m in my 30s and I still have nightmares about gym class and my gym uniform. I was varsity athlete in high school, too, so I imagine its worse for the people who didn’t even like sports.

  9. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    There’s a catch-22 involved with school and PE. On the one hand, part of school’s mission is turning out healthy kids, and kids do need exercise, generally more than they’re getting. So because PE and recess have been chipped away at until they barely exist at some schools, there’s a big push to schedule more of them. The idea of children getting more exercise is sound. My children get about two hours a day of exercise, and spend little of the intervening time just sitting on their duffs.

    The problems occur in part because PE and recess, as has been mentioned above, are where the lion’s share of bullying at school happens. Recess is just a free-for-all at most schools, and kids get free reign to exercise all the meanness and violence they’ve been inhibiting during class. The adults kaffeeklatsch in one corner of the playground while around the bend the meeker kids are brutalized.

    One of the principal problems with mass schooling is that it doesn’t socialize kids to become part of adult society. It segregates them, locks them out of adult society (monitored by adults who themselves may have failed to become adults), and makes them invent their own society and their own socialization. William Golding showed us what the child-invented society inevitably looks like.

    Absent the panopticon of the teacher’s fortress desk in the classroom, the child-invented society reaches its full expression in the schoolyard and in the locker rooms. It is not a voluntary society; the school has more in common with the prison than it does with the workplace. It is a society in which anyone who is fat, or small, or slow, or awkward, is brutalized. No number of sententious picture-books read in the classroom will remediate this.

    A push to include more physical education in schools will inexorably lead to greater brutality, more bullying, and greater stress for the children. The increased stress alone will negate the benefits of the PE period for most children.

    My son loves exercise, and he is becoming an expert in his chosen sports. Neither of his chosen sports are offered in any elementary school. Schools cannot both be small enough to be nurturing and large enough to provide sufficient choice for all children. School is not a workable answer to the question of children. School is just what you have to do to your kids if you can’t take care of them yourself.

  10. Sallie @ A Quiet Simple Life
    Sallie @ A Quiet Simple Life says:

    PE class. Yuck. I managed to take just one PE class in middle school for nine weeks and that was more than enough. I did marching band for four years in high school so that counted as my PE requirement. Way more fun!

  11. Jennie
    Jennie says:

    Throughout elementary school, I was a little do-gooder, teacher’s pet, and loved school and learning. The one horror of my week was gym class. I used to fake illness to get out of school on the day my class had phys. ed. My parents were called into multiple parent-teacher conferences with the gym teacher. I came up with inventive ways to slip out of class right before my team was called up to play (something in my eye, I have to pee, etc.)
    Sports was not part of my life growing up. My father’s hobby was music, I had never watched sports games on TV, and the extracurricular sports I was enrolled in were skiing, horseback riding, and other things you can’t do in school. So when I went to gym class and had boys yelling at me because I was bad at playing soccer, volleyball, basketball, pickleball(?), frisbee, you name it, I was completely traumatized and miserable.
    I am 26, and I have never in my life exercised regularly. I know I’m lazy and I don’t prioritize it, but until this post I never thought to connect the anxieties I experienced as a child in relation to gym class with my avoidance of physical exercise today.

  12. Keith Mackie
    Keith Mackie says:

    I totally agree with the comments here. I hated P.E. at school, it gave me a phobia of sport, particularly football and rugby. Kids that are not good at sport are bullied and teased, it makes them feel uncomfortable and effects them negatively later on in life. I am all for physical exercise, but kids should be able to pick the kind of exercise they feel comfortable with. The reason kids are obese nowadys is because of 24 hour T.V., computer games, junk food and the fact that thier paretns drive them everywhere. An hours P.E. a week is not going to solve this.

  13. Bill
    Bill says:

    I speak as a 64-year-old man who has spent a small fortune on personal trainers at a local health club working on a bodybuilding program. Except for the educators who advocate reform (who, as far as I’m concerned, are in the minority, not the majority), I have nothing but contempt for the phys ed establishment.

    The mandatory P.E. of my youth was an exercise in hypocrisy (no pun intended). No exercise programs (not even bodybuilding) were provided for the nonathletic boys. There wasn’t even any instruction in the sports themselves! All of my P.E. coaches viewed nonathletic boys with either indifference or outright contempt. Amazingly enough, I didn’t get any exercise! Today I get far more exercise in a single workout session with my personal trainer than I ever did in an entire year of P.E.!

    In the next few decades, I would learn that my P.E. experience was not unique. It was shared by other nonathletic guys of my generation.

    For generations the phys ed establishment has turned a blind eye to the bullying of nonathletic boys. (Girls, too, as I understand.) Sometimes the bullies have been coaches!

    Here’s a link to a recent article that’s quite relevant to your thread:

    Of course, I was already aware of this dismal fact. I wouldn’t set foot in a health club until I was 57 years old!

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