Like many avid readers, I hated the one class in school where my academic brilliance did me no good – Phys Ed (or, as we called it back then, gym class). I had always thought that school was supposed to be about academics. So why did they make us do stuff that depended on innate abilities rather than study? Of course, I eventually realized (probably when I was in college) that my success in school had a lot to do with my innate abilities. It was just that mine happened to be intellectual rather than kinesthetic.
I had always assumed that formal physical education was a fairly new phenomenon, its need created by widespread use of technology such as the automobile and television. After all, people always talked about how active children used to be before TV, and television ownership only became widespread starting in the 1950’s. (Of course, today people talk about how active children used to be before video games.) Before that, children played outside more, worked harder at chores, and of course everyone walked a lot more.
So I was surprised to learn that physical education classes go back to the first half of the nineteenth century. My interest was piqued, to begin with, by an article I read in the Smithsonian while exercising yesterday. I don’t generally read articles about sports, but I read the Smithsonian cover to cover (which takes several sessions on the elliptical machine), and this month’s issue – not surprisingly – has several articles about the Olympics. One is about the origin of the modern Olympic games, and the sentence that surprised me was this:
When the Crown began mustering its youth to serve in the Boer War, it discovered that large numbers of Englishmen were in poor physical condition.
Now, there are various reasons why people might have been in poor physical condition. If they worked in factories, they might be suffering from the ill effects of toxins in the work environment. Whether they lived in cities or the countryside, they were mostly poor and lacked the abundance and variety of healthy food that we (in most developed countries) enjoy today.
But if those were the causes of poor physical condition, why mention it in the context of sports and exercise? An organized program of physical activity will improve the health of people who simply haven’t been getting much exercise, but I doubt it does much for the health of those suffering from poor nutrition or environmental toxins.
I had always thought that most people got plenty of exercise back then just from going about daily life. This website about the Edwardian period confirms this. Yet in the very next paragraph, it talks about how “British military leadership were shocked by the fact that so many potential recruits had proved physically unfit for military service.” How they had the stamina required for the rigors of everyday life but not military service puzzles me.
So I started looking for articles on the history of physical education. In a sense, of course, physical education has been around since antiquity, as boys and young men had to develop the strength and skills they would need as soldiers. Having an adequate supply of healthy young men with training in the use of arms was also the motivation behind the push for phys ed programs in schools in the early twentieth century.
Yet according to this article, “The beginning of formal physical education began in England during the 19th century in an effort to encourage beauty and posture for English women.” I think back to gym class in elementary school, and try to imagine developing either beauty or good posture from playing kickball. Or the students’ favorite (but not mine) – Mr. King Soccer. (Mr. King was our teacher, and in this game the object to kick the soccer ball – not into a goal, but rather to knock down bowling pins guarded by the members of the opposing team.)
In middle school we did gymnastics, which I see could have helped with posture, but I absolutely hated it. In field hockey, I at least felt I had a chance to do well if I kept running and managed to be in the right place to hit the ball if it came in my direction. But there was no way I could look poised or agile. I was just relieved when I could get through the yearly unit on gymnastics without looking like too much of a klutz.
One of my worst memories from all my years in school is trying to vault over the “horse.” Over and over the teacher made me run up, jump off the springboard, and try to make it over the horse. I don’t know if my technique was the problem or I was too slow or not strong enough, but every time I came up short and banged my knees against the side of the horse. I was in tears by the time she finally let me stop, and my knees were scraped raw. (Though probably not quite as raw as from my klutzy fall face-down into the concrete while jogging this weekend.)
For those of my classmates who enjoyed sports and weren’t afraid of the ball (any ball – I was afraid of just about any ball except a ping-pong ball, and we didn’t have ping-pong tables at school), gym class may have improved their physical fitness. What it taught me was to find a way to be as inconspicuous as possible, because that way I’d be less likely to make myself look foolish. Usually it meant being where there was the least action, which meant that if my heart rate increased it was more likely due to anxiety than physical activity.
I am glad that at least by the time I was in school, rope climbing was no longer a required activity. I tried it once or twice, and I’m not sure I ever got as far as getting my feet off the ground. I suppose it develops upper body strength if you have enough to start climbing to begin with, but I didn’t. The one gym class I ever enjoyed was one in high school that catered to the non-athletic – we got to play gym hockey (plastic sticks and puck), badminton, and other games that got us moving somewhat without feeling too intimidating if we weren’t good at them.
Perhaps things are better today – in some schools at least. During last year, in sixth grade, my son told me that in phys ed class he had the option of walking/jogging around the field instead of participating in an organized sport. I only once ever had that choice, when I had been sick the first week of school and every single phys ed class was filled by the time I got back.
I got to be a class of one, unsupervised, and I actually was starting to build up some stamina when pain in my foot sent me to the doctor, who excused me from phys ed for several weeks. (He diagnosed it as tendonitis; a podiatrist later took X-rays and informed me that I had had a fracture that had – fortunately – healed well on its own.) I have to admit, those several weeks when I just sat indoors and did my homework for other classes, I enjoyed phys ed period more than I ever had before.