If the obesity epidemic is going to be reversed, a focus on physical activity will likely play at least some role. True, exercise alone isn't going to fix the problem—which is still a big one, despite all our efforts. (Statistics published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that 68 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, while about 32 percent of children have body mass indexes that qualify them as overweight or obese.) But most experts do agree that physical activity can be helpful for weight control. And it certainly brings a host of other health benefits.
A new report by an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, though, says the earliest exposure to organized physical activity—school physical education classes—can be the kind of experience that either gets kids on the road to a lifetime exercise habit or turns them off to sports. This will come as no surprise to anyone who still harbors horrific memories of gym class, whether of being bruised in dodge ball (check), humiliated in an attempt to do a pull-up (check), or picked last for pretty much every team (check—no wonder I now prefer individual sports). When psychologist Billy Strean talked to people about their physical education and sports experiences, he heard about an awful lot of bad experiences caused by bad teachers. What struck him, he says, "was the degree to which someone could be talking about something that happened 50 or 60 years ago but right on the spot could be having a clearly visceral, emotional reaction."
Admittedly, Strean's interviews, published in Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, don't constitute a controlled experiment. He analyzed interviews with 24 people, most of whom responded to a request in a newspaper. People with bad gym or sports experiences were probably more likely to respond than those with neutral or good experiences. But through his own and others' research, Strean took away some themes. First, not surprisingly, the personal characteristics of instructors and coaches had a great deal to do with the experience. (You're more likely to recall how mean—or nice—your seventh-grade gym teacher was than the quality of his explanation of baseball's rules.)
Second, the ideal learning environment for sports and P.E. promotes fun (the primary reason that kids participate in physical activity), offers some kind of structure or rules, and is "designed to accommodate a balance of skills and challenges." Social interactions are also important; kids like to be with friends when they're doing sports or activities. And then there's the importance of P.E. teachers and sports instructors remembering how influential they can be, even years down the line, and acting accordingly. Strean once spoke with a radio interviewer who could remember exactly how his eighth-grade rugby teacher called him "useless."
Negative experiences, he says, may not turn people off from all forms of physical activity, but they can certainly keep people far away from competitive or team sports—or anything that "involves the threat of demonstrating competence publicly"—for years. (And that's a shame, because playing with a group or team can keep you motivated and help you make exercise a habit.)
My own suggestion: If you have bad childhood sports memories, turn them to your own advantage. I took up running as an adult after failing miserably at it during every P.E. class I ever had. The element of revenge made finishing my first marathon even sweeter. Most importantly, take a cue from Strean's report, which emphasized the importance of fun in either organized or informal activity. If you find something you truly enjoy, exercise can seem less like a drag and more like, well, play.