How P.E. teachers are trying to get students off the couch during the pandemic

Courtesy Los Angeles Unified School District

Felix Quiñónez, an elementary school P.E. teacher in Los Angeles Unified, leads his students in physical exercises online.

Imagine trying to work out in a crowded living room, with no exercise equipment besides rolled-up socks and soup cans.

For many students in California, that’s what physical education class looks like these days. Since campuses closed in March, P.E. teachers are scrambling for creative ways to keep students physically active — with no gymnasiums, sports fields or playgrounds — at a time when experts say students’ physical and mental health is paramount.

“P.E. has been one of the most challenging subjects to teach online. Teachers are working incredibly hard,” said Patricia Suppe, president of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. “But the irony is, students need P.E. now more than ever, not just for physical health but mental health.”

Even before the pandemic, children in California suffered from higher-than-average rates of obesity. According to 2019 data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 17.1% of children ages 10-17 in California are obese, compared to 15.5% nationwide. Now, with children spending more time in front of screens and less time engaged in physical activity, the obesity rate is expected to jump in 2020.

Schools are required to provide physical education while campuses are closed, but in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom waived the minimum number of P.E. minutes schools had to offer. Previously, the law required that students receive 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days in elementary school, and 400 minutes every 10 days in middle and high school.

Most schools in California are offering some sort of virtual P.E., at least a few hours a week, Suppe said.

The challenges are many. Some students live in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to run or walk outside. Others live in apartments with no yards. In many cities, parks are closed due to the pandemic. And in much of California, extreme heat or smoke has limited students’ access to the outdoors, regardless of other issues.

A survey of 489 P.E. teachers in California, conducted this fall by Suppe’s organization, found other obstacles, as well. Students often turn off their cameras, so teachers can’t see if students are exercising; many districts have eliminated P.E. as a stand-alone class or made it an elective; and teachers are worried about liability if students injure themselves while exercising at home.

Despite these hurdles, P.E. teachers are trying to keep students active and physically healthy during the pandemic. For starters, they’ve designed workouts that can be done safely indoors, using common household objects that can be fashioned into exercise equipment. A few examples include:

  • Using water bottles for soccer goals.
  • Letting students pick their favorite music to dance to.
  • Calisthenic activities that can be done in one place.
  • Using soup cans or milk cartons as weights.
  • Yoga.
  • Using rolled-up socks for balls.
  • Running up and down stairs.

Where possible, teachers are urging students to go for bike rides, hikes, jogs or walks, logging their distance and time. Other teachers are distributing basic equipment for students to use at home, such as jump-ropes, hula hoops, balls and stretch bands.

Felix Quiñonez, who teaches P.E. in elementary schools in Los Angeles Unified and was a district Teacher of the Year for 2019-20, has taken his lessons far beyond push-ups and jumping jacks. He talks to his students about all aspects of health, including the harmful effects of sugar, the importance of warm-up and cool-down routines and how physical activity can reduce anxiety and boost mental health overall.

Throughout every class, he asks his students to use emojis to show how they’re feeling emotionally, and adjusts his lesson plan accordingly.

“It’s not just movement for movement’s sake,” he said. “It’s about brain health. It’s about how exercise can give you a mindset to help you deal with challenges.”

It’s not just that exercising is good for children’s health; it’s also that not exercising can be particularly harmful, said Adriana Valenzuela, who oversees P.E. for Los Angeles Unified. She described the phenomenon as a “double whammy.”

Sitting for long periods can make one feel sluggish, mentally foggy and irritable or depressed, which in turn can make one not want to exercise, she said.

“That’s why it’s so important that we teach students not just how to exercise, but why to exercise,” she said. “And it’s not just about kids. We try to reach families, too.”

Dr. Susan Babey, senior research scientist at UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, said the stakes for children’s health are high, and go far beyond P.E. Risk factors for obesity all appear to be on the rise.

Students who rely on healthy meals from school lunch programs might not be getting them, and are eating more junk food and snacks at home. Students are more sedentary, spending hours every day in front of computer screens. And even outside P.E., students are getting far less physical activity than they once did because they’re missing soccer, baseball and other extracurricular sports, after-school programs and even recess.

“These were already problems for many students, but the pandemic has exacerbated them,” Babey said.

Young person on mountain bike along wooded path
Photo by Coen van de Broek on Unsplash

The lack of physical activity can have a ripple effect, affecting students’ mental and emotional well-being, as well as their ability to focus on academics, she said.

That’s a chief concern for Michele Pacheco, manager of P.E. for Fresno Unified. She worries that without regular exercise, students won’t be able to cope with the stress and uncertainty many are facing.

Lack of, or limited, physical education also has a social cost, she added. Playing sports is a way to make friends and connect with peers in an informal context, and can help students learn important social-emotional skills like how to win, how to lose and how to support your teammates. Students are also typically better behaved after exercising, she said.

“P.E. is so critically important for kids,” Pacheco said. “It helps with emotional regulation, helps you do better in class, gives you a better outlook. It releases feel-good hormones and helps you better retain information. Your whole brain lights up.”

But more than anything else, physical activity is fun — something in short supply these days. Dancing, running around with friends, riding a bike — those are the joys of childhood (and adulthood), said Terri Drain, president-elect of the Society of Health and Physical Educators and a retired P.E. teacher in Pleasanton.

Those moments of happiness can help students endure the more challenging times, she said.

“Movement is an opportunity to experience intrinsic satisfaction, to know what it is to be alive,” she said. “Kids who learn these skills do better in school, and in life. … My heart breaks for kids who aren’t able to be physically active right now.”

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