Ask anybody their earliest memory of what the word “exercise” means. Nine times out of ten, they’re flashing back to the school gym. I know I certainly do. And what do people remember about school gym?
Frustration. I never learned to do a cartwheel. I just couldn’t do it. To a grade-school little girl, this was actually a serious failing. My gym teacher actually kept me in at recess for over a month to try to teach me cartwheels. Seriously. (Incidentally, I never learned to do a cartwheel. Surprisingly, this failure hasn’t significantly impacted my life in any way whatsoever.)
Discomfort. Did those horrible one-piece gym outfits inflicted on schoolgirls in the late '60s and '70s ever fit anyone? I was tall for my age, and for a girl, I had quarterback shoulders. I went through gym class with a perpetual wedgie.
Drudgery. Really, did anybody look forward to doing jumping jacks, situps and pushups in gym class? Even the sporty types?
Rejection and humiliation. I was the bookish geeky girl with the coke bottle glasses who was invariably chosen last for every team, and the other kids made fun of everything I did – or couldn’t do.
Physical pain. Between grade school and middle school, I broke five pairs of glasses (this was the 1960s, when glasses as strong as mine cost about $200 a pair and took almost a month to get another pair made), had at least a dozen severely sprained ankles, four or five bloody noses, knocked most of my front teeth loose and split my lip (same incident), three or four black eyes, and one probable concussion. I couldn’t even begin to count the bruises and scrapes and pulled muscles. And all this from a physically cautious, geeky little girl who took no crazy risks and did the absolute minimum possible in gym.
Doomed to failure. Why is it that if students have trouble in math or reading, they can take remedial classes or get special help, they’re not expected to compete against gifted students, but in gym class poor clumsy nonathletic kids are expected to keep up with, and compete against, gifted athletes? Why isn’t there a remedial gym class for the athletically challenged, where kids can perform at their own level of ability?
I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” and in it he bemoaned how some schools had gym classes only one day a week, and some not at all. My first thought was, “God, I wish that had been my school!” I’m sure that’s not the message Mr. Spurlock wanted the audience to get, but I have the feeling that maybe I’m not as unique as all that. Really, if the above are the kind of feelings that a child comes to associate with exercise, is it any wonder that people grow up trying to avoid it? And because my earliest experiences with deliberate physical exercise were so negative, I consequently did my very best to avoid exercise thereafter.
As matters stood, I was over 40 years old when I first realized I could enjoy deliberate physical exercise. For me, the key was solitude – the diametric opposite of those horrible school gym classes. I’m a deeply introverted exerciser. I don't do aerobics classes. I don't do personal trainers or exercise buddies. Put on my iPod and use weight machines or get on my elliptical, and I can happily sweat and retreat into my own little world. I get a definite “buzz” from it. I sure wish I’d realized all this several decades ago!
I can only imagine how different my life would have been if my early experiences with the word “exercise” had been positive. How would it have changed the way I thought of physical activity if my gym teacher hadn’t rolled her eyes at me when I failed to perform a cartwheel, or if the other kids hadn’t laughed at me when a dodgeball hit me in the face and shattered my glasses, thus effectively blinding me for weeks? How would it have changed my self-esteem and my perception of my body if I’d been allowed to perform and succeed at my own level of ability instead of being forced to compete, and doomed to fail, against the phys ed equivalent of Mensa students? Might I not have developed healthy and regular exercise habits if I'd been allowed to find, and practice, forms of exercise I enjoyed, or at least didn't mind, instead of what I thought of as daily physical and psychological torture?
I’m going to cap this rant off with a truly pathetic confession. The one food I’ve never been able to eat is beans. They make me hurl. Seriously. Beans = hurl. Period.
Well, my worst school nightmare was that horrible hellish day known as “school olympics” – a whole afternoon of schoolwide competitive games. Well, in fourth grade, I got up at 3 a.m. and tiptoed into the kitchen and scooped out a tiny spoonful of leftover baked beans, which I took back to my bedroom and mashed up to make them unrecognizable. Later that morning, I went from breakfast to my bedroom and ate the beans, walked out into the hall and threw up everywhere. That got me out of school and “school olympics.” To be brutally honest, if I’d had the wherewithal, I’d have gladly picked up a gun and shot myself in the foot if it would have gotten me out of a year’s worth of gym class.
What a difference we could make for our kids by making exercise a positive experience, instead of a twelve-year course in humiliation and body dysmorphia. Is it a tragedy that there isn’t more phys ed in school? I don’t know. Lack of exercise is a bad thing – I totally agree. I’m just not sure that doing permanent damage to a child’s self-esteem in the name of “health” is any healthier.