These days, kids spend most of their time watching TV or playing on
computers. As a result, youth are becoming less physically active and more
sedentary. So how do we get them off the couch and moving again?
Some physical education experts in the U.S. may have found the answer.
The physical education teacher at Cabell-Midland High School in Virginia
teaches children how to ride mountain bikes.
Kids at the Coleman Middle School in Kansas play air piano as they learn
how to line dance at the hands of their physical education instructor. In
Illinois, youth in the Naperville school district are exercising in their
"target rate zones."
These are just some of the latest trends transforming the way physical
education has traditionally been taught in schools. What has been dubbed the
"new PE" is introducing youth to a wider range of physical activities, from
mountain biking to ice-skating.
"It is all the forms of physical activity we can think of that might engage
kids," says Judith Young. She is the executive director of the National Association
for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).
"In Alaska, some of our teachers are doing ice-skating and cross-country
skiing. In some of our western states, they do things like juggling. Other
programs include martial arts, aerobics, rock climbing and Rollerblading."
In fact, recent studies have indicated a drop in physical activity levels
among North American youth. A report put out by the U.S. Surgeon General reveals
that "nearly half of young people aged 12 to 21 are not vigorously active
on a regular basis."
"We're in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic among young people," reported
Howell Wechsler in an article in USA Today. "It's been consistent in every
demographic group you can imagine." Wechsler works for the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention's division of adolescent and school health.
Aside from leading to heart disease, obesity heightens one's risk of colon
cancer, diabetes and adult diseases like osteoporosis. There are also emotional
and psychological complications associated with weight gain, such as depression,
anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Andrea Grantham is a communications consultant with a physical education
association. "If they are not getting it through a daily physical education
program, then they are not going to get it," she says. "Hence, the health
problems existing today in kids will continue and multiply into adulthood."
Marilies Rettig is a physical education teacher. She agrees. "That is why
it is absolutely critical that schools provide a physical education program."
But when you look at the prevailing attitudes towards physical education,
the situation doesn't look good.
Many people believe schools aren't delivering in the area of physical education.
The average elementary student participates in one to three 25- to 30-minute
blocks of physical activity a week. The average high school student gets a
maximum of one year in a four-year period.
Time constraints are another reason why a lot of students don't take physical
education in high school. "Knowledge has expanded in the last 100 years and
the school day and the school year are the same as they always were," says
Young. "We have a lot more to learn and the same amount of time to learn it
That is why more schools are going back to teaching the basics. The problem
is that programs like physical education, art and music end up being compromised
for courses in computers and technology.
The Hiring Crunch
Given that, employment prospects for physical education teachers remain
up in the air.
But there is some glimmer of hope. Both the U.S. and Canada are facing
massive teacher shortages within the next few years.
More openings for teachers could mean more employment possibilities for
physical education teachers.
"There will be a demand for teachers in some subject areas. And certainly
the demand for physical education teachers will escalate if indeed the appropriate
stress and recognition is given to physical education," says Rettig.
Teachers who supplement a background in physical education with math, science
or computers will be able to cash in on the teacher shortage by making themselves
that much more marketable. "Those are good combinations [considering] there
is a demand for those other subject areas," says Rettig.
The need for qualified teachers in these areas has already hit the U.S.
"We already have a shortage of teachers in math and science," says Young.
"And a number of teachers are already having to teach outside their qualified
A good example is elementary teachers who double as physical education
teachers. "In elementary, classroom teachers teach most of the physical education.
It usually is a matter of perhaps supervising a few games."
But that also prevents more physical education teachers from being hired.
And that's bad news at a time when specialists in this field are needed.
"We feel that this is really a negative turn, given the fact that physical
education is viewed as a frill. It is not just a matter of getting kids to
throw a few balls around," says Grantham.
"A physical education teacher is someone who knows how to teach children
how to be active. They are not there to run around and do skipping at recess.
They are there to learn the skills that are necessary to carry on into lifelong
A Love for Sport
So what does it take to become a qualified physical education teacher?
"You don't have to be an athlete to be a physical education teacher," notes
Young. A love for sports is enough. "It is the same qualities we would like
in any teacher -- an interest and enthusiasm for the subject they are teaching.
Physical education is the same."
A desire to share your passion for physical activity and fitness with children
and youth also helps.
"That was my drive to be a physical education teacher, to instill in children
and youth an enjoyment and desire to participate in physical education," says
Rettig. "That has to be central, regardless of what your experience as an
There is also the matter of obtaining the right credentials.
The path one must take to become a physical education teacher in the U.S.
varies from state to state. "There are specific certifications in all states
for physical education," says Young.
"Sometimes it is by level. Sometimes by K to 12. Those require a bachelor
degree in physical education and some of them have to pass the national teacher
exam or other state tests for teachers."
Those interested in pursuing a career in physical education can also expect
to take courses in child development, anatomy and physiology, psychology and
The Future of Physical Education
Until schools make physical education a mandatory part of one's education,
opportunities for physical education teachers will be limited. Organizations
like NASPE are working hard to get that message out, but it isn't always easy.
"It is not like some other campaigns that we go out on like seat belts
or bicycle helmets where we have very dramatic immediate results," says Young.
"The impact of physical activity is cumulative over a period of time, so you
do not have these striking incidents or problems as a result of not being
In the end, many hope that changes in public perception towards physical
education will spark a demand for more physical education teachers. With time,
people in all walks of life will come to understand the benefits of an active
and healthy lifestyle.
As Young points out, "As the whole of society, both adults and children,
get increasingly sedentary, we will begin to realize that we were meant to
be moving entities."
National Association for Girls and Women in Sport
A nonprofit organization of over 25,000 professionals in the
fitness and physical activity fields
Physical Activity and Health
Have a glance at the U.S. Surgeon General's report
A site for physical education teachers