The New P.E.

So here’s the deal with PE.  It was all wrong for the last hundred years.  It focused on sports.  And if you didn’t like sports, or were bad at sports, or didn’t look like you might have an athlete in you, you sat on the sides and waited for it to be over.  Almost no one left PE in better shape or better spirits.

Until a renegade PE teacher in Naperville, Illinois changed everything.  He was upset that so many kids were obese.  He was upset that so many kids hated PE.  And he heard this important little statistic: Only thee percent of adults stay in shape by playing team sports.

So he restructured his district’s PE program.  They would teach fitness rather than sports.  DUH!  Why hadn’t people done this before?  He gave all the kids heart rate monitors and their grades were based on improvements in fitness.  He added climbing walls, crew teams, and treadmills with video games on them.  He made sure that every kid could find something they liked doing to get fit.  Kids set target heart rate, blood pressure and body fat, and monitor them regularly.  They teach square dancing to all ninth graders and use it as an opportunity to teach social skills.

And kids love it.  They love having target fitness goals and working to beat personal bests in the mile, which every kid runs regularly.

Better yet, there were changes in academic performance.  Lots of studies have shown that fit kids perform better academically than non-fit peers, even when you control for things like SES.  And Naperville’s test scores bear that out.  In Naperville, they’ve taken it even further.  Guidance counselors now schedule students for PE just before their most difficult academic classes because they found that students perform better in the 60 to 90 minutes just after vigorous exercise.

People around the country took notice and have been trying it in their neck of the woods. After one school district in Pennsylvania modeled their PE program after Naperville’s, test scores have risen from below the state average to 17 percentage points above it in reading and 18 in math.  Remarkably, since the program began in 2000 there hasn’t been a single fistfight among its 550 student junior high population.

Just amazing.  You really should read Spark, where doctor John Ratey describes the Naperville program and the “Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”  Or just stay tuned for reviews of latter chapters.

A personal reflection on the book:  I’m writing this tonight from a hotel less than a mile from our house.  (I love homeschooling these days, but I love breaks from it too.  So I stole away with a friend to do my own work for two nights.)  At first I thought I would take a break from exercise.  After all, I started our homeschool fitness regime to keep the kids in their seats and on task for a few more seconds.  But I’ve been so inspired by Naperville that I got up this morning and hit the treadmill.

Because I wanted to take advantage of my 60-90 minutes of post-exercise productivity, I skipped my shower and went right to work.  Could be the placebo effect, but I was a focused machine.

Still haven’t taken a shower and it’s been ten hours.  I’m not too surprised though.  The thing I always hated about PE was the shower.  Has anyone come up with a fix for that?

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  • Andrea Cohn

    i just saw this skunk photo. so funny. you should frame it and put it in your office.