Originally published Sept. 21, 2020 by Pipe Dream.

By Ariel Wajnrajch

As a child, all the way through high school, I always struggled with gym class. But if, similar to high school, I were required to take some sort of gym class every semester in college, I’d probably appreciate it a lot now.

I used to resent that requirement, but now I wish my university cared enough about me to make sure I had a designated time in my day to get that movement in.

I think the fact that my high school carved out time so that it was easy for me to get those 60 recommended active minutes every day was really considerate and I regret not taking advantage of that. If I used that time well, I’d probably have gotten my energy out and focused better in my other classes, maybe even getting better grades across the board. However, I didn’t do that. My reasoning behind that is that I always associated gym class with shame and with competition that I knew I would lose. I wasn’t the competitive soccer star, I was just counting down the minutes until class ended.

Those days when my gym teacher let us pick what we wanted to do, on the other hand, were great. I could take a nice quick walk with a friend and talk, lift weights, do yoga, play pickleball, go for a run or honestly anything besides sitting and doing nothing. If they said, the requirement is to get your body moving in some way, I might have done a lot more. I might have picked up an activity more seriously or joined an after-school team or, at the very least, felt less embarrassed when the class was doing an activity that didn’t come easily to me. They tried to teach us the names for different types of strength training exercises, how to stretch properly, things like that. When it came down to it though, we just didn’t care to learn it. I think all we really needed was an opportunity to get the energy out. I know that competition is really helpful for some students, but it never sat well with me.

More than that, the fact that my peers could see me, and might even pay attention to me, made me uncomfortable. I felt uneasy running the mile because I knew that I was going to finish last and my friends who had already finished would be watching me catch up to them. They weren’t being mean to me or anything, they were cheering me on, actually. The issue was that they were paying attention when I wanted to do it alone without any attention.

If there was more of an individualized approach to gym class, in which the atmosphere created was one where no one watched what anyone else was doing, schools would succeed a lot more at fostering a long-term relationship between students and fitness. There was no opportunity for me to exercise on my own, and that element of shame ruined exercise for me. It was how I felt in my gym clothes, how I knew I was slower and how I felt myself not being able to achieve as much, that made me never want to workout outside of school.

Since starting college, I’ve learned that I really set myself up for a good day when I do some kind of movement in the morning. It took me a while to genuinely want to do that, and I still struggle with that motivation. In an article published on Medium.com, contributor Justine Figueroa pleaded, “I want to walk up stairs without feeling like death and have chiseled arms like Michele Obama, but every time I set foot in a gym, a heavy anxiety fills my chest, like I’m back in the high school weight room all over again.” There’s this gym anxiety, in which those feelings of shame and inferiority take over again, and it can ruin long term fitness goals for those people. Figueroa continued, “I worry my 10+ years of gym class trauma will be insurmountable. So for now, I’ll just sit in left field, watching from a distance.”

The one-size-fits-all model of gym class most of us were exposed to growing up created an aversion to exercise for me. In a country with such a high obesity rate in children, we need to find an approach to foster a lifestyle that includes fitness and health as a priority in the long term for these children. We must make sure our students do things they like. Even after the dance unit is over, let the dancers in the class practice their craft. The basketball team probably just wants to work on free throws, and that’s fine. They’re going to be moving, and that’s ultimately what we want for them. Once a week we could have that specialized class in which everyone has to do the same thing, because there are different skills that we want to impart to these students before they graduate. Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in a well-rounded exercise education, but I don’t think it needs to be as frequent as it is right now. Here and there, important lessons regarding fitness should be taught — dynamic stretches before certain exercises, static stretches after or what constitutes an active rest day. They shouldn’t take over the entire curriculum.

If you frequently view TikTok, you’ll see a lot of the usual toxic eating habits and body negativity found on any social media, but you’ll also notice body positivity. For example, users are showing their stomachs when they aren’t covered by high-waisted pants, to show other people that it’s normal to not have a flat stomach, even if it looks like they might have one when the pants are high-waisted. On Instagram, there’s a growing trend of people posting two pictures together: one that’s more traditionally expected on Instagram with those “flattering” poses, and one that’s more relaxed that shows that even if it looks like that person might be super thin, they are only posing, and it’s okay to look different when your muscles are relaxed. In one of these, posted by @bodyposipanda, she writes “Our bodies are glorious from every angle. Posed or unposed. Polished or not. And we sure as hell don’t need to compare ourselves to anybody’s highlight reel, after all, the model in the magazine doesn’t even look like the model in the magazine most of the time.”

The fitness movement, on the other hand, often tends to coincide with the fat-phobic population, which creates a very common rhetoric surrounding the notion that skinny equates to healthy, fat equates to unhealthy and there’s no gray area. A study done in 2017, published by the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, showed that 84 percent of the top grossing G and PG rated movies included weight-related stigma, showing that this starts at a young age, and just how damaging it can be. A study published by Wagner et al. in 2013 found that suicidal behavior and attempts were increased greatly in obese individuals.

If we want to improve child overweight and obesity rates, we must give our children the opportunity to get their bodies moving in a way that they think is fun and we must encourage this body positivity and acceptance when we see it.

Ariel Wajnrajch is a sophomore majoring in psychology.

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    Physical education instruction needs to be reevaluated
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    Physical education instruction needs to be reevaluated
    The way teachers instruct students in PE goes a long way to helping instill a passion for exercise and lifetime fitness.
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