How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gym Class

Children playing in park
I hated gym class. Like so many other nerdy, awkward kids, I despised it. I was bad at it; I was scared of it; it was a place of exclusion and shame.

And then almost overnight, I started liking gym. I didn’t just stop hating it — I actually enjoyed it. I looked forward to it. I had fun with it. And I was good at it. I vividly remember my nerdy math-teacher father jokingly scolding me about my report card one quarter, scowling and asking with mock disapproval how a daughter of his could have gotten an A in gym.

What happened?

I didn’t change overnight. I didn’t suddenly become a jock; I didn’t suddenly get good at playing with others or remembering the rules of the games. So what happened?

I was able to pick my own gym classes.

At the school I went to, once we got into high school we were able to pick our own P.E. classes. There were some restrictions: out of the six sections in the school year, you had to take one individual sport, one team sport, and one swimming sport. But within those guidelines, you could sign up for any classes you wanted.

I took as many dance classes as I could. In one glorious year I wound up with half my gym classes being dance: modern, jazz, and disco. And for my swimming sport I took synchronized swimming, which back in the day we called water ballet. Water dance!

I couldn’t always take dance. So I also took fencing, which was super fun: it takes more thought and agility than strength (at least on the “high school gym class” level), and there’s nothing easier than fencing with a macho teenage boy who thinks he’s Errol Flynn. I took “conditioning,” basically just working out in a group, with a good-natured teacher who made it surprisingly low-stress and fun. I took billiards: I don’t know what demented genius decided to let high school kids off campus and into the university rec hall so they could shoot pool for gym class, but I am grateful to this day. It wasn’t all dreamy: the one section a year I had to waste on team sports was always kind of hellish. But for most of the year, I either liked P.E. or loved it.

And I got a lot out of it. It made me feel strong and capable. It helped me establish a connection with my body, which is good for lots of people but especially important for teenage girls. The very act of choosing made me feel that physical activity wasn’t a penance being inflicted on me, but a world of options I could navigate. And it taught me that physical activity could be pleasurable and fun — a lesson I carry with me to this day.

I realize I’m a sample size of one, and I realize I’m not any kind of expert in child development. And I’m sure that letting kids pick their own gym classes creates logistical issues, especially for younger kids. But I know I’m not the only person who grew up hating gym. It’s a really common experience, and it has consequences. Being forced to do sports that you hate and suck at doesn’t establish a lifetime habit of activity. It cuts us off from our bodies. It makes physical activity feel like an ordeal. It turns moving our bodies into an “us and them” thing, a world where anyone who’s not a jock feels like an outsider. That’s a crappy lifetime habit to establish.

So here’s a memo to educators, parents, city planners, anyone else with some power in this arena. If you want kids and teenagers to be more physically active, and to carry that into adulthood? Let them choose their freaking activities. As much as possible. Not just in high school, but as early as possible.

Phys ed isn’t like math or English, where you’re learning specific skills you’re likely to need later in life. There are important exceptions, like learning to swim. But nobody is going to suffer as an adult because as a child they played jump-rope instead of baseball. And I can’t be the only person who learned to love being physical once they were able to chart their own way. I don’t think this is a magic pill that will transform everyone into physical dynamos, regardless of their temperament or abilities. I just think it could help us love our bodies a little more, and feel more comfortable using them.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gym Class

3 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gym Class

  1. 1

    That sounds like a wonderful experience! I had the standard “PE is hell” experience; I do remember excelling at the stretching exercises and being weirdly decent at the horse vaulting we did this one time. I was way too tall and heavy to actually be competitive level at gymnastics, but throwing myself over a thing is too fun not to get good at.

  2. 2

    I relate to this wholeheartedly. I got to do aerobics for sophomore PE and I loved it. It was not just because I had chosen the class, which definitely played a role, but also because there was a lot more choice involved in general. The instructor would ask us for our input in choosing the music, even asking us what music she should get when it was time to buy more. Part of our grade was to make up routines to whatever music we wanted; as long as the songs we chose had the right BPM and no swears that weren’t censored, it was pretty open. I didn’t do much with the choice in clothing, but my classmates did, wearing leotards and leggings and legwarmers under or in addition to the uniform.

    Minors get so little agency in their lives that they tend to cherish whatever they do feel they have truly chosen, I think.

  3. 3

    We had a little choice freshman year of high school (big city school in Detroit) and for reasons that are unclear to me, I chose golf. It was great to ride over to Palmer Park golf course in the mornings and I did learn the basics…enough to convince me I didn’t care for the sport, but enough to get by on the rare occasions when I had to play (mainly when hanging out with both sets of in-laws who were golfers). The other “choice” I made that year was a swimming class at 7 am (to clear my afternoon schedule) and it was hell. Take the bus in the ice and cold and wind (wearing skirts and knee sox, no pants back in the ’50s), disrobe and swim, deal with drying wet hair in 5 minutes before my 8 o’clock class. Bad idea!!

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