Part 1: I Walk, And I Like It!
A few years after finishing college, I began to discover that I could have fun with my body. I was no athlete, but I could walk just fine, and, slowly, I realized that walking could feel satisfying and even invigorating. Traveling by foot from my Harvard Square apartment, eventually hitting the bridge that would take me into Boston, felt magical. I’d reach the bridge, look at the water surrounding me, and smile. My feet had brought me there. I’d realize I’d been walking for about 40 minutes and soak in my achievement. Then I’d walk a little while longer, enter Boston, and think: “Wow, my own feet took me out of Cambridge and into a whole new city.”
True, my standards for physical accomplishment weren’t very high: I wasn’t running at all, or playing any sports. But excessive expectations tend to shut me down. I like to expect what I’m pretty sure I can achieve. When I wasn’t heading to Boston, I could walk all over Cambridge and into the nearby town of Somerville. New worlds were opening, and I could reach them with no help or planning. Whenever I wanted, my feet would perform their magic.
Cambridge was my first post-college city, and I wasn’t content to stay within a several-block radius like I was during my undergraduate years. The subway went some places, but far from everywhere; this was no NYC. I’ve never felt comfortable driving, and I did not have a car. I was pushed to walk, and, for the most part, I didn’t resent it. I felt like I was accomplishing something just by going about my day.
I was using my body, moving it, letting it do something other than sit in a chair and meander into the next room. That may not sound remarkable for a young person, but, for me, it was. Years later, I continue to walk and enjoy it, though days certainly go by when I don’t move all that much. I feel slightly proud of myself when I take a satisfying trip by foot. Aside from the likely health benefits, it’s good and even healing to have this source of pride. Assuming my basic health can keep up (I just closed my eyes and uttered a kind of incoherent prayer along those lines, since I’m superstitious like that) I will always have this easy source of confidence: I don’t have to rely on anyone else’s attention, time, or interest to make it happen.
Part 2: Sedentary Childhood
To name a form of exercise as a positive force in my life feels almost miraculous. When I think about it in the context of my life as a whole, I am pleasantly shocked. As a child, I avoided all forms of bodily movement whenever possible. My parents did try a bit to spark my interest in something physical. At various times, I took ice skating, swimming, tennis, and golf lessons. I did learn to swim decently and skate to a degree (golf and tennis were beyond me).
My mother had this idea that I should find some kind of sport that I could play far beyond childhood, throughout my whole life. Golf might have worked if I had been able to figure out how to hold the club and hit the ball. Little did we know that something I had managed to learn as a very young child might suffice: something I did without thinking much about it, and that didn’t require time-consuming, expensive lessons, or any equipment beyond comfortable shoes.
Aside from my occasional lessons, I was so sedentary I barely knew what to do with my body in order to run. Occasionally, my neighbors — typical active kids — would convince me to play some kind of game that involved running… and it made me sick, nervous, and lonely. I remember thinking: “This is so weird, but I’d feel less alone if I were sitting on my own at home. At least then I could relax and not feel like I have to keep up with kids who are much stronger and better coordinated than I am.”
One evening, after running with them for a few minutes, I headed back home and threw up. Somehow, that killed it all for me. I never played outside with them again.
You might guess that at least I got some exercise in gym class. Ironically enough, gym only convinced me to avoid exercise entirely. In 7th grade, I went through a phase of cutting gym fairly often with a friend of mine. Not knowing where else to go to avoid detection, we’d head over to the bathroom and hide out in next-door stalls, giggling as we tried to maintain a normal conversation while backed into a toilet. That we’d prefer hanging out with toilets to playing games in gym should give you a sense for our feelings about gym.
Our gym teachers were not abusive: they just didn’t know what to do with kids who weren’t prepared to play soccer, or attempt to complete a physical fitness test. I couldn’t run around our field; my side started aching after maybe 2 minutes… so the question of how fast I could run around it was pointless even to consider. Nor could I complete one pushup: I just couldn’t imagine what to do with my body to make a pushup happen. I was excellent at the flexed arm hang: a staple of physical fitness tests that involved holding yourself up while gripping a bar for as long as you could manage. Each year when we completed that piece of the national physical fitness test we all had to take, I was newly amazed at my lone skill in this arena. But that quick rush of pride was not enough to compensate for the pounding defeat in all other areas of gym.
Granted, I was an odd case, with an unusual learning disability that hampered my ability to learn physical skills. I’ve written about my nonverbal learning disability in some depth in a previous essay, but I didn’t explore the effects on my athletic ability in much detail. Somehow, I just don’t seem to pick up the complex movements necessary to play most sports or participate in physical activities like dancing and yoga. It’s frustrating for teachers since I look like I’d be OK at athletics, but in fact can’t learn even basic skills. So… gym for me involved standing around while most kids honed their athletic ability and played games.
But I was far from alone in my non-participation. My partner in crime when I cut gym also got very little from it. There were a few kids whose weight made sustained running and such difficult, and a few others who had coordination problems… or whose personality structures just didn’t mesh with gym as it was taught. A guy friend of mine probably would have cut gym with me and my other pal if he could have joined us in the bathroom, even though his coordination was excellent, and he did shockingly well on the yearly physical fitness tests. He just couldn’t get behind competitive games and physical jostling with the boys as they slogged it out on the field. When I couldn’t manage to cut gym, I’d head over to the seats as soon as I could, and he’d typically join me soon afterwards.
Unlike the two friends I’ve mentioned, I was so bad at gym that my school arranged for me to meet with a physical therapist, to try to strengthen my skills. It was a sweet idea, and I enjoyed tossing a big medicine ball around with her, and holding up my end of the cloth we used to make a little parachute. Funny enough, my brother joined us after a while, since my mother thought his handwriting might benefit from these exercises.
If this had replaced gym, it would have been refreshing and healing, allowing me to use my body and learn skills at a pace I could follow. But it didn’t: I was pulled out of some other class so this could happen. The thinking was that these exercises would help me succeed in mainstream gym. But they didn’t at all.
During my 7th grade checkup at the pediatrician, my mother and I told my doctor about my gym woes, and he decided to write me a note to get me out of it entirely: a dispensation that worked until the end of 8th grade, when we all moved on to high school. He was very clear about it, saying there was no point to it for me, given what we were telling him. His note made a big deal out of the fact that I was born a few weeks early, giving the impression that this was the reason that gym was beyond me. “This ought to do it,” he said, laughing, showing my mother and me the note, which expressed my birth weight of 5 pounds, 5 ounces in a very clinical way that made it sound like a medical catastrophe.
Dr. Schwartz was a huge proponent of exercise and healthy living, but he could tell that gym was doing nothing for me in those spheres. In fact, it was making me despise exercise even more, since I endured shame and ridicule during those classes. Other kids would mimic my jerky, clumsy movements, laughing and nudging each other when I was forced into trying an activity. When teams were chosen, I was generally dead last. As pickings became slim, team captains would begin consulting with their top choices, whispering their musings all too loudly: “If we pick Steffi [my childhood nickname], she’ll just stand there doing nothing. And if she does try, she could ruin everything.”
Simply existing in those classes, no matter what I did or didn’t do, created disaster. There was no way out except completely out… a dispensation that allowed me to hang out in the library while my classmates ran around and mocked my poor remaining pals whose doctors weren’t as crafty as mine.
Getting out of gym was a tiny step forward in the life of my body. I still didn’t move much, but at least I didn’t associate movement with mockery and emotional abuse. As the stress from those classes subsided, I thought less about my lack of coordination and general dislike of physical activity. And that was a boost. Neutrality beats active, seething distress.
Part 3: Making Gym Helpful For Those Who Need It Most
School gym classes seem least helpful for those who need it most: the kids who dislike exercise and sports and never choose to pursue them. Athletic students will relish the chance to move their bodies and hone their physical skills during school. And that’s wonderful. Many of them need that outlet. For some, gym is the arena where they can feel most successful, comfortable, and at home. Other kids can be coaxed into appreciating structured athletics: they might not choose it on their own, but they realize they enjoy it when they’re pushed into doing it. These kids will get much-needed exercise in school: a boon since they’re probably not getting much when it’s not scheduled into their day.
And then there are the students who loathe gym and do all they can to avoid taking part. This segment is larger than many might think. When I mention school gym to current friends of mine, many — maybe even most — report hating it. If we’re going by people in my social circles (by no means a representative sample), pretty much every kid in pretty much every school was the last one picked for teams. The seats surrounding the field or court were filled, and few played the game the gym teachers tried to lead. The least athletic students would tremendously benefit from exercise in school because they rarely get it on their own. And gym is turning them off of moving their bodies, making them associate physical movement with mockery, shame, and social exclusion.
I wish I could say that it doesn’t much matter whether people exercise. I certainly don’t think people need to do it for some kind of moral reason, or to achieve some measure of personal productivity. In the world I would create, any activity that someone loves would lead to health and vigor… and people who hate exercise would get just as much benefit out of eating butterscotch sundaes or lounging in a hammock. Sadly, though, evidence points to a strong relationship between exercise and long-term health outcomes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States, the percentage of obese children has more than tripled since the 1970s. I know that the question of whether a high body mass index is a health hazard is controversial, and, surely, some can live long and healthy lives at weights most doctors would flag as problematic. But the CDC, a renowned national public health institute, has linked childhood obesity to boosted risk of many key problems with physical and emotional health: type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma, bone and joint difficulties, social ostracism, depression, diminished confidence, and continued obesity in adulthood, leading to increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and other problems.
Of course, not all kids who avoid exercise are obese. At times, I was a bit chubby as a child, but the problem never got too severe, probably because my mother watched my food intake, and I listened to her somewhat, despite my annoyance. I feared death even then, and knew that letting my weight get out of control might raise the risk of it happening sooner than necessary. But basic logic suggests that kids struggling with excess pounds would have an easier time if they burned more calories, reducing the need for vigilance regarding food choices and portions.
No one knows for sure why obesity has skyrocketed in the U.S. (and many other places around the world) among both children and adults, but many link the problem to increased time using electronics and decreased time exercising and playing sports, particularly with kids. It seems that fewer kids get regular, intense exercise today than in past decades. And schools might be able to help, but that won’t happen if they don’t radically change their options for physical education.
My suggestion is simple and cost-effective. Physical education classes could offer a walking option. Kids who want to play the game(s) or learn the skill(s) of the day could take the normal class. And kids who prefer to walk could do just that. This would work best if students got to choose fresh before each class. A kid who normally prefers walking might like the idea of one particular skill the regular gym class is learning one day. And a passionate athlete might just want to try a low-key walk on a day when she could use some time for reflection or relaxation.
To appeal to students who emphasize mind more than body, teachers could suggest walking for creative or intellectual inspiration. The last few minutes of class could be used to write down any ideas that might have come to mind during the walk, so kids don’t lose them if they want to use them in concrete ways later on.
I don’t recommend making this component mandatory. Some students are weak both academically and athletically, and walking, ideally, should be a break for them too, with no pressure to write anything down if they don’t enjoy that sort of thing. But it could be encouraged. During the last five or ten minutes of class, teachers could suggest that those who want to can write something inspired by the walk. That would link gym seamlessly with some kids’ desire to use their minds whenever possible, and show them that, in general, physical and intellectual pursuits don’t have to be separate. Each area can help the other flourish. Students whose main goal is to hone their intellectual or artistic skills could see gym as part of that path. Schools that are open to spiritual pursuits could encourage religious, mystical, or spiritual reflection during the walks, for students who might find that meaningful.
The key is to make the walking option as open as possible, allowing each kid to make gym-time walking a meaningful, attainable individual pursuit. The aim here is to encourage exercise among a crowd that tends to avoid it and find it onerous, so stumbling blocks should be eliminated. Rather than dreading the nightmare of a fast-paced sport, a poorly coordinated, out-of-shape, or physically reticent student could look forward to a walk that is free of stress and un-competitive. If any kids who are unable to walk are part of the gym class, this could easily be adapted depending on need. For instance, a student in a wheelchair could wheel around, getting exercise that way.
Students could be encouraged, but not forced, to gradually step up their walking, going faster and/or longer. If some students want to compete in some way — say, race from one spot to another — that should be allowed among kids who want that, but not forced on anyone who doesn’t.
My thinking is simple: when it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing. And walking for, say, a half hour straight is a definite something, even if it’s not at a fast pace. If they think they have to push themselves too far, kids who are really averse to physical pursuits will head to the seats just like during mandatory soccer. If slow walking is OK, they’ll probably avoid the seats and walk. They’ll get their bodies moving a bit, and their speed is likely to improve over time just based on familiarity and comfort with walking.
Of course, students doing different things could create a logistical problem for gym teachers if they have to supervise walkers and game players at the same time. But schools could hire people with no in-depth training to supervise the walkers. Some schools hire two gym teachers to handle big classes, and they might be able to save money and use just one qualified gym teacher for these classes, since the walkers wouldn’t need intensive instruction and would do well with an educational aide or some such who could guide them through possibilities while they walk.
My thoughts on the sticky problem of gym in schools have evolved over time. Until recently, I felt that gym should be optional, drawing on my boosted mood and confidence when I was exempted from it. But I can’t argue with or change the fact that research suggests that exercise promotes marked health benefits. And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I genuinely enjoy walking, shocking as that would seem to my sedentary childhood self. I believe that many other non-athletic souls would also enjoy it, if they were pushed to give it a chance. If I had discovered walking earlier, my childhood options would have expanded enormously. I could have walked into town and had lunch on my own: a treat I didn’t get to enjoy until college. When I reached high school age, I might have been able to walk to my town’s bus stop, getting myself to NYC and back with no parental assistance. I would have felt some pleasure in a physical accomplishment, a sensation that seemed unimaginable until graduate school.
Current school gym classes alienate and even mortify the students who need them most: the ones who count on them to provide and encourage exercise that isn’t happening in their free time. Getting it right would be so easy. School people out there: please go for it. The simple act of walking during gym could help reverse the health issues plaguing far too many children… and their future adult selves.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.