Gym Class, or Physical Education?

Photo by Krossbow, via Flickr

By Michael Fergenson, AJN senior editorial coordinator

Gym class. Some of us may have memories of a brusque man tossing a ball into the middle of the gym, telling us to play and occasionally blowing a whistle. Popular culture certainly portrays the “gym teacher” in this way—or worse, sometimes they’re cast as the villain. I put gym teacher in quotes in the last sentence because my dad would get angry with me if he heard that term, or “gym class” for that matter. My father considers himself a physical educator. When people call him a gym teacher, which is most of the time, he replies with the quip: “The gymnasium is the room that I teach in, but I am a physical education teacher.”

There’s something more important going on here than mere semantics. Is this pop cultural view of the gym teacher causing harm to students? I believe so.

My father has been a physical educator for a little more than 20 years. For a long time I had the same negative view of gym teachers as most people. That was until I began to study education myself. I definitely wasn’t going to be a gym teacher—oh no, it was literature for me. I would be a high school English teacher, but that didn’t sound quite right. It reminded me of my dad’s quips. I wasn’t going to teach English, I was going to teach literature. That thought stayed in the back of my mind until, for a class assignment, I went to watch my dad teach. That’s when I finally realized the difference between a gym teacher and a physical education teacher.

My dad didn’t just toss a ball and tell the kids to go play. He was teaching these kids how to be physically fit. He taught them proper nutrition, how the different muscle groups work, the types of exercises that one could do to achieve results—and that was just the beginning. He taught the difference between exercises for muscle strength, muscle endurance, and elasticity. He showed them the proper way to stretch and the proper way to cool down. In short, he was teaching his elementary school class how to be physically fit.

More importantly, he was instilling a love of his subject in his students. That is the goal of any good teacher, because it means the students will continue to learn that subject and delight it in long after they have left school.

Unfortunately, not everyone has seen real physical education. More unfortunately, those making education policy don’t seem to have either. We all know that physical education budgets are being cut around the country, because it’s seen as unnecessary. However, studies such as this one, which was recently published in the American Heart Journal, show that proper physical education can help reduce the current obesity epidemic among American children.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently released the report, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation. According to the IOM, “Two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese. Left unchecked, obesity’s effects on health, health care costs, and our productivity as a nation could become catastrophic.” The report lists many recommendations for preventing obesity. One in particular, which called for “at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day,” caught my eye. Although this recommendation seems to be moving in the right direction, what constitutes “physical activity” in some schools may not be enough to get the job done.

As I learned from watching my father teach, there’s a huge difference between physical activity and physical education. Sometimes schools are forced to meet their physical activity time by just letting students out into the yard to play. This is nothing compared to actual physical education, where students learn proper exercise, nutrition, and skills to help them prevent obesity throughout their lives. This difference has to be brought to light.

The report also calls for health care providers to have an expanded role in obesity prevention, such as “routine screening of body mass index (BMI), counseling, and behavioral interventions for children.” Hopefully this post can provide nurses with new insight into this problem, and bring awareness to the difference between physical activity and physical education.

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Managing editor, American Journal of Nursing


  1. Terri June 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Insightful! As a physical education teacher I have learned that in various gymnasiums, physical education teachers can be wonderful educators or poor educators. As in any content area, the teacher may or may not excel as a teacher! I have good and bad teachers in all areas and grades! I chose to be pro-active and became a physical education teacher for many reason, which I will not go into. BUT the bottom line is “I truly wanted children to explore a variety of ways to be healthy, active and have fun for a lifetime.” I hope I am accomplishing that as their physical education teacher and role model!

  2. Peggy June 4, 2012 at 1:07 am

    Great post! I cringe when I think of my primary and high school gym classes as I was terrible at “sports” and can’t remember a teacher that taught fitness, nutrition, etc. Your dad sounds wonderful and any kid that are lucky enough to be exposed to his passion for fitness and education are indeed going to learn something worthwhile.

  3. JParadisiRN May 23, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I was fortunate to have a physical education teacher my senior year of high school. I was one of those kids perfectly happy to sit out gym class, reading a book, until Ms. H. She explained physical fitness means you are strong enough to pull yourself out of danger. It means you can run to find help (or these days, get a patient to the ICU fast). It means you can develop social contacts and business networking by playing golf or tennis. She understood team sports weren’t my thing, and helped me develop a personalized program of running, and strength training I still use all these years later. She’s one of a handful of the most influential teachers throughout my life, because she taught physical education, not gym class. Thank you for a great post!

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