High school gym class: unfortunately, we’ve all been there. The smelly uniforms and overly competitive students were bad, but the unhealthy and unhelpful lessons many take away are far worse. Gym teachers (sometimes because of requirements by the state) often run their classes in ways that can damage students’ self-esteem. In large part, this is a result of outdated and inaccurate measures of “health.”
The standardization of high school P.E. means that more students are being told that they are unfit. This can impact their confidence and cause them to resort to dangerous eating and exercise habits. One significant factor is schools’ shifts towards using purely mathematical data, such as Body Mass Index (BMI), to assess students’ health. BMI measurement in schools is currently required by 20 states and used in over 40% of schools. The index was invented over 200 years ago by a mathematician—not a physician—to assess general weight trends in a population. However, the formula is absurdly simple. It is merely a proportion between height and weight, leaving out key measurements like the proportions of muscle, bone, and fat, which can drastically alter a person’s weight. Fat weighs less than both muscle and bone, so someone which the strongest bones, highest muscle mass, and lowest fat levels can appear fall into “overweight” or “obese” BMI categories. The methodology of splitting people into such rigid groups (obese, overweight, normal, and underweight) based on a simplistic equation and assigning health assumptions to those groups is inherently flawed.
As if simply using BMI wasn’t bad enough, the method by which gym teachers calculate it can also be a major issue. Some gym teachers measure their students’ heights and weights publicly, one by one, at the front of the class. This practice is uncomfortable for all students involved, making them feel self-conscious as their bodies are assessed in front of their peers. This is an invasion of privacy and a completely unacceptable practice. Some students have protested it within their schools, and all students have the right to protest it. The emphasis on BMI is harmful because it can skew students’ own perceptions of themselves in an inaccurate way, and is never an accurate measure of health, regardless of one’s level of fitness. The number from an overly simple formula should not matter as much as leading a balanced lifestyle and, most importantly, finding movement that’s enjoyable, but gym classes fail to deliver this message.
Negative messages, especially when coming from presumably knowledgeable authority figures like teachers, can have drastic impacts on students. This can lead some to resort to dangerous habits like restricting eating or over-exercising in order to meet rigid standards. Instead of concentrating so much on calculations, teachers should discuss with students the many aspects of fitness. This includes moderate exercise, a balanced diet, and a positive self-image. This absolutely does not include BMI or other arbitrary numbers that can negatively alter students’ perceptions of themselves. When more focus is put on leading healthy lives (including helping students identify exercise and/or movement that’s fun for them), instead of unflinching numbers and embarrassing fitness tests, students will feel more comfortable with themselves and dread gym class a little bit less.
Claudia Morris is a college student from New York. She is currently working toward her B.A. in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and interning at the National Eating Disorders Association. She hopes to obtain her doctorate in psychology and become a clinical psychologist.