Colleges hope phys ed leads to lifelong healthy habits
Class requirement allows students to prioritize exercise
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, every student has to take four six-week physical education courses such as swimming, archery or yoga. Across Cambridge, Mass., at Harvard, there’s no phys ed requirement at all. And at Atlanta’s Spelman College, sports teams were disbanded four years ago, replaced by a push for fitness at the historically black women’s college.
There’s no magic pill to improve school performance, but exercise comes close. It promotes deeper, more restorative sleep, improves concentration, makes people feel stronger and releases endorphins, which have been linked to better mood, evidence has shown.
“There is mountains of data on how important physical activity is on short-term health and longterm health,” says Daniel Lieberman, chair of Harvard’s human evolutionary biology department.
But American colleges take a very inconsistent view on physical education.
In the 1930s, just about every college student was required to take phys ed. It was part of being a well-rounded student.
Today, an all-time low 40% of students at four-year colleges have any requirement to exercise, according to a 2012 study led by Bradley Cardinal, a professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University.
At Harvard, Lieberman and several colleagues are beginning a discussion about resurrecting a phys ed requirement.
The emphasis today is on lifelong wellness: recognizing the benefits that exercise provides and learning skills that will serve students later in life. Research suggests that being active in college leads people to be more active when they’re older. Forget Degas’ dancers: You can wear an impressionist painting right on your pants while at the ballet barre. Fitness studio Pure Barre has teamed with athleticwear brand Alala for these artsy leggings. $110, available this month in select Pure Barre studios
Each of the phys ed classes at MIT, regardless of whether it’s archery, scuba diving or ballroom dancing, is designed to both build competence in a specific activity and provide general fitness knowledge, says Carrie Sampson Moore, the school’s director of physical education.
At a place like MIT, where students tend to be high-achievers, it’s hard to get them to squeeze exercise into their already full schedules, Moore says. Having the requirement gives them permission to prioritize exercise.
“It’s the one last opportunity students might have to establish a pattern of health that will help not only them or their family, but ... down the road, they’re going to be better role models for their students and employees,” she says.
Lieberman says that while students are in school, institutions have leverage to require them to take classes in English, math — and maybe phys ed.
“The question is: What’s the appropriate level at which we help people do what they want to do themselves?” Lieberman asks.
Lieberman wants to make sure any requirement at Harvard would avoid body shaming. He cited one university that required students to maintain a certain body mass index. We’re convinced the geometric lines on Nike Power Legendary leggings make muscles appear more toned. The compression pants are perfect for cross-training. $150, store.nike.com Want to look as though you’re running as fast as Quicksilver ... when you’re moving at normal speed? Avocado’s Aurora Capri gives your jog the look of a lightning boost. $54, shopavocado.com The Wunder Under pants from Lululemon feel as soft as the pattern looks. They’re great for exercising ... but also for couch-reclining. $98, shop.lululemon.com
“How horrible is that, to say you have to get below a certain BMI to graduate?” he says. “That is just scary and outrageous and unacceptable.”
Current approaches to exercise emphasize its rewards; the carrot, Fabletics’ so-called Electric Zebra midrise pants go on sale Oct. 1. By then, you should have found a rave to wear them to. $49.95, fabletics.com not the stick.
At Spelman, the new fitness facility is the “eighth wonder of the world,” says Brenda Dalton, director of health services and wellness. “It inspires one to come work out.”
Spelman requires students to do 15 hours of physical education to graduate, in hopes that such a minimal requirement won’t be daunting, but will encourage
“It’s the one last opportunity students might have to establish a pattern of health.” M.I.T. director
women to learn enough to feel comfortable continuing their chosen activities. The school offers students wellness classes, including boxing, strength training and swimming, and is launching intramural teams this fall.
“It’s just a matter of finding something of interest to everybody,” Dalton says. “We want to be life-altering and life-changing.”
Could walking to class and other informal activities (think Frisbees on the lawn) help students make up for missed gym classes? Cardinal, whose own school doesn’t have a phys ed requirement, doesn’t think so.
Only about 5% of American adults get the governmentrecommended levels of weekly activity: 2 hours, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, or 1 hour, 15 minutes of vigorous activity, such as jogging. Even being generous, Cardinal doesn’t believe more than 20% of college students get that much exercise.
Cardinal says it’s ironic that most of the research showing the benefits of exercise comes out of the same universities that don’t do enough to keep students active.
“We know this works. We know it’s good for people, but we’re not requiring it,” he says. “It just seems crazy to me.”
Carrie Sampson Moore,