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Exercise is good for you. It improves physical health, and even improves cognition. It can improve mental health, in some cases.  

So, should we require gym class in college?

Karen Costa outlined a thoughtful argument that we should. She noted that phys ed requirements are less common than they once were, but in some ways, more necessary than they’ve ever been. Ours is an increasingly sedentary society, due to jobs that have moved inside. So, should we mandate gym class?

At the risk of seeming curmudgeonly, I’m going with “no.” And it’s not because I reject the benefits of exercise. I agree that it has real benefits; that’s why I drag myself out of bed at dark o’clock three mornings a week to go to the gym before work. (Sometimes I wonder about the cost/benefit of lost sleep vs. missed exercise, but that’s another post.) If nothing else, it at least makes me feel like I’m trying.  

So no, I’m not some sort of exercise “truther.” I just don’t believe in gym requirements in college.

One college at which I worked had a health and wellness requirement, so I’ve seen it in action. Students were open, even brazen, in their attempts to minimize or evade it.  Scheduling was a nightmare, given how small the classes had to be. Anything strenuous enough to have benefits required major facilities; anything that didn’t require facilities wasn’t strenuous enough to matter. And that’s before discussing the different kinds of student bodies we have: some disabled, some older, some with childcare obligations, some who could only come at night.  Now we have online students.  

Transfer is a major issue. If the destination four-year schools don’t require it, we don’t want to saddle students with the cost in both time and money.  

In my own undergrad days, I had a phys ed requirement, and even had to pass a swim test. The latter was just mean; the former was silly. I got through the requirement as quickly as humanly possible so I could get back to determining my own exercise. (Admittedly, the requirement gave me one good story. I took a unit called “beginning hiking and camping.” We had to hike Mount Greylock. The class was taught in the early Fall, when the leaves were starting to change. Near the top, as we paused to look at the view, my friend Steve Winger said “This is really different from high school. In high school, the coach would be yelling ‘Winger!  Get your hand out of your ass and enjoy the goddamned scenery!’” I’m not saying I’ve quoted that on family trips, but I’m not denying it, either.) And don’t even get me started on the K-12 version.  

Leaving autobiography aside, though, I’ve never seen a shred of data to indicate that students at schools with phys ed or health and wellness requirements are healthier than students at schools without them. I’d be surprised if they were, given how assiduously students minimized the impact of the requirement. We have assessment data showing that, say, English composition classes improve student writing. Do we have data showing that a health and wellness class requirement improves student health? If so, I’ve never seen it.

Even if we did, at a really basic level, the argument that “it’s good for you, so it should be mandatory” is potentially infinite. Eating your vegetables is good for you, but we don’t monitor students’ diets. Church attendance has been shown to have positive effects, but requiring that at a public institution would raise issues better left unraised. Midafternoon naps are good for you, but we don’t supply cots. Voting is desirable, but we don’t mandate that. At some point, we have to respect students’ freedom. Bodily integrity strikes me as a good place to start.

We can’t require everything that’s good. We have limited resources, students have limited time, and we have to respect a diversity of students and student needs. That means saying “no” to some things. I’m happy to support the idea of colleges having fitness centers on campus, and I don’t even mind charging staff a membership fee for them. But assuming that a mandatory health or phys ed class will be a gain across the board flies in the face of evidence, experience, and common sense.  The requirement has faded away for a reason. Let’s focus on what we’re good at, and let students make their own choices about their bodies.


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