Instilling a Life-Long Love of Fitness

When you ask most adults to recall their experience in middle school PE, you get a wide array of responses, but very few of them are pleasant. Climbing the rope, awkward attempts at pull-ups with underdeveloped arms, being last to get picked for teams—the list goes on.

This isn’t the fault of the well-meaning PE teachers we worked with. Most of them were coaches and athletes themselves, and grew up believing that anyone could be an athlete if they just tried hard enough.

But not everyone is a runner.

Some people are dancers, some are climbers, some are wrestlers. There are line-men, and cross-fitters and shot putters too.

But as we’re learning to develop those identities, and to find the activities that we enjoy the most, we lose out on a valuable period of time, where many of us try to avoid exercise and physical activity altogether.

There have been studies done on why involvement in physical activity drops off during adolescence. Body image is, of course, one of the main concerns. Changing bodies mean changing abilities and new things to be self-conscious over.

If our goal as health and PE teachers is to get these kids excited about healthy living, then we need to find ways to engage all students that are enjoyable to them, regardless of skill, gender, or body type.

Here a few ways to encourage a love of physical activity in all of our students.

1. Scrap the Timed Mile: It’s All About the 12-Minute Run

There are very few things as humiliating for a 12-year-old as being the last one to come running in while all of your classmates are standing there watching…. especially if your changing body is bouncing and jiggling in ways that you are not yet accustomed to.

This is one of the reasons why so many students fake injuries or illness, forget their PE clothes, or try any other form of dramatics to get out of PE. It’s also why some students don’t even bother to try running, and just prefer to walk.

Set the timer for 12 minutes. Everyone starts and stops at the same time. This way, the kids are focused on improving their own time, and it might even encourage those who would usually walk to try running. If nobody’s watching, they might discover a skill and passion they never would have given themselves a chance to explore otherwise.

2. The “I am a…” Posters

A parkour poster created by one of Amy’s health students.

A parkour poster created by one of Amy’s health students.

This is a simple and fun formative assessment that just takes a lesson or two. The idea is to get the students to identify with at least one physical activity that they enjoy. Hopefully they have many, but for some of our students who are struggling with their weight, they can often forget that physical activity is supposed to be fun.

Exercise has become something that’s prescribed to them by every adult they know. They think they need to be running, but they need to be reminded that there are many ways to be physically active, and there’s got to be at least one form of exercise that they enjoy. It doesn’t have to be something they get to do all of the time, and it doesn’t have to be something that they’re good at either.

The idea is to get them to remember the feeling of endorphins they get when they’re engaging in their activity. Then they’re eager to find other ways to recreate it with activities they can do more frequently.

I have them make a simple poster, explain their favorite activity, describe why they like it, and how it makes them feel when they’re doing it. Then they include a picture of themselves engaging in it.

My 6th graders are working on it right now, and there are some unique posters in the stack… basketball, dancing, parkour, and even flashlight tag.

Hey, whatever gets you up and moving.

3. Physical Activity Interviews

Hopefully the kids all know at least one or two adults who exercise on a regular basis. I have them interview them so that they can see that there are a wide variety of ways to stay fit. Sure, some adults like to run and go to the gym, but we’ve got teachers who are yogis, hikers, and climbers. We’ve even got a group who play in an adult dodgeball league. Some love cross-fit. Some kid’s parents like golf, and some like walking or stand-up paddle boarding.

For the most part though, the kids learn that exercise is fun and that the activities most adults enjoy aren’t necessarily the ones that they enjoyed or learned when they were younger.

It gives them inspiration to try out different activities as they’re discovering some new ones they might enjoy. And hopefully, it’ll give them someone to try them out with.

About the author: Amy teaches Middle School Health at the Shanghai American School and has a passion for curriculum that is current, relevant, adaptable, and shared. She has presented at conferences in Asia as well as the AAHPERD and SHAPE America National Conventions. You can access her blog and resources at and find her on twitter at @teaching_health.

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