PE should start you on a lifelong course of physical fitness


I was one of those straight-A, teacher's pet, smart girls. No dates and no athletic ability. And so I passed through my high school gym classes in a fog of deep embarrassment.

I was always the last one picked when they chose up sides and the first one eliminated in dodgeball. On my best day, I recorded below-average scores on all the skill tests. The only way I could prevent my gym grade from keeping me off the honor roll was with the extra credit you received if you showered after every class.

In those '60s gym classes, the only time we ran was during the timed test in the 440-yard --. The only time we handled a ball was when we were tested in the softball throw. The only time we did exercises was when we were tested for sit-ups. I forced myself to do 50 for an A and then didn't laugh or breathe for a week.

Now, I am a woman battling the twin demons of age and child-bearing and trying to find my niche in a world of the physically fit. Over the years, I have jogged, played racquetball and done aerobics. None of them well.

I long ago gave up hope that I could look like Demi Moore after two kids. And I have noticed, to my horror, that my ears perk up when someone mentions that aerobics can prevent osteoporosis and incontinence in older women.

My gym class did not prepare me for a fit and healthy life. But, like so many things, if I could do gym class over today, I would do better.

That's because physical education, or PE as it is called now, has changed. The poor physical fitness of our children, the relationship of a lifetime of fitness to health,Title IX -- all have forced a rethinking of PE. And a visit to Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel County, where PE has been designated a model program, proved how much. Even I could get an A in PE, athletic director Jim Dillon assures.

"Varsity athletes aren't the only ones who get A's. We evaluate the kids in terms of personal bests. We try to teach that fitness is an attitude, a lifestyle."

At Old Mill, PE is called "Fitness for Life." Students are taught a smorgasbord of team and individual sports -- everything from soccer to flag football, gymnastics to team handball, dance to weight training. There should be something any student can have a good enough time doing to do for the rest of his life.

"When I taught at Arundel years ago," instructor Jan Arnold says, essentially taught a volleyball class filled with my varsity volleyball players. Now, it is all different kinds of kids in all different kinds of activities."

The hall near the gym is lined with pictures of pretty senior girls in strapless homecoming gowns -- gifts from graduates who believed instructor Ron Evans when he said girls could weight train and not look like Arnold in a dress. Now, his class is crowded with 105-pound girls wearing "Power Club" T-shirts and bench-pressing three times their weight.

Finals are going on in Patti DeMarco's fourth-year dance class, and the girls look like something from "A Chorus Line" as they move through a three-minute jazz routine. And they will also be "tested" on modern dance and ballet compositions before the semester is over. They are concentrating too hard to smile, but they love it.

Jennifer, who sustained a spinal injury as an infant, plays table tennis in her PE class -- from a wheelchair. And so does her opponent -- Ms. Arnold uses a spare wheelchair to even the odds.

But nearly a quarter of Pat Chance's PE class fails to make it through a 20-minute "Buns of Steel" aerobics tape, and she, coach of a string of girls state basketball championship teams, is disgusted.

"Kids today aren't fit," she says. "The public should be alarmed at our PE test scores. And they should demand a good PE program the way they demand a good academic one."

In my high school, the big divider in the gym that separated the boys from the girls opened only for the square-dancing unit. Now, boys and girls are taught together. You are as likely to find boys in a step aerobics class as you are to find girls in a floor hockey game.

PE is required by the state for ninth-graders, but after that, it is an elective, and kids are hard-pressed to find a spot for it among their required courses. That seems so unwise.

Like Peggy Sue, I never used algebra again after high school. But I could have found endless uses for hand-eye coordination and a little more lung capacity.

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