Fit for PhysEd?

football cartA little while back, as part of his blog entitled “Help me, help me”, @SchleiderJustin posted the following question for #slowchatpe: Q3: Should physical education teachers be physically fit barring medical reasons? Why?

I threw out a fairly quick answer that included something like, “Depends on your definition of fit: cross-fit models on the cover of GQ/Cosmo or healthy and active role models?” If you read this blog at all, you probably guessed which way I am leaning… The twitter conversation was good – but left me wanting more. Since that response, however, I have actually been thinking about this question a lot. Really – a lot.

Perhaps the reason that the question is so pervasive is because the answer, for each of us, says a lot about what we value and, who we are.  On the blog page – where the focus of the post was actually on getting 20 minutes of physical activity a day – two comments sprung out at me (oh, and this one: “I think that i should try it and nice job on your opinion.”).

Comment: Should we be physically fit? Yes. Should our students be physically fit? Yes. Just as we would expect our students to work towards achieving fitness, and understanding the value of being healthy, so too should we be striving to achieve those same goals.

Response: I agree with you whole-heartedly. How can we preach something and not follow through on our own teachings? We don’t have to be fitness maniacs or body builders; however, if you are obese it is sending the wrong message. Would you go to a church where the minister did drugs? Would you go to a dentist who was missing half their teeth? Would you buy a car from a GM salesperson after you see him drive away in a Toyota? No. You have to model fitness for the ss or you are just another hypocrite.

I found myself confused by the inherent contradictions, unclear definitions and hyperbole in these two comments. Therefore, you’ll have to forgive me as I go on a bit of a rambling rant about this topic. Of course, rather than forgive me, you could just choose to stop reading and go about your life without the enlightening power of this polemic. 😉

Why the focus on fitness?

What do we really mean when we say PE teachers should be “fit”? I would argue that when you say, “PE teachers should be “fit”” – your listeners see these images:

rippedabs six-pack

But what IS fitness?

Fit is defined as: “In good health, especially because of regular physical exercise: my family keep fit by walking and cycling.”

Fitness is defined as: “The condition of being physically fit and healthy: disease and lack of fitness are closely related.

Other, more specific definitions include categories such as cardio-respiratory endurance, power, flexibility, strength, etc. There are even those who would crown the “fittest” man/woman on earth.

876-cristiano-ronaldo-mens-health-cover-us-edition-august-2014 camilleRich

Are these images what we want our PE students and teachers to strive for? In my province, the aim of our Program of Studies for PE: “…is to enable individuals to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to lead an active, healthy lifestyle”. Therefore, to me, being fit is not about how you look (more on this further down…), how much you can lift or, how fast you can run. Being fit is about being in good health and being active for life. My first job as a PE teacher is to ensure my students make strides (see what I did there?) to meet the aim of the program. In that, I agree with the comment above – we should all (Ts and Ss) be striving to meet goals of being fit (see earlier definition) and understanding (and applying / living) the value of being healthy. YES!

As a PE teacher I agree that modeling a healthy active lifestyle can be important. Active for life. A physical literacy journey. Being healthy. For sure. However, this is a package deal that considers SO much more than fitness. Consider the diagram below (thanks @DeanKriellaars) and the role fitness plays in the journey that is physical literacy.

Slide25 So why do we say that PE teachers should be fit? Why only focus on this one area? Why not complex skills, active living in the community, health behaviours, or other parts of the PE curriculum? Why not focus on the fact that PE teachers need to TEACH?

My sneaking suspicion of why the fit PE teacher issue is so pervasive is that it has to do with how we look and what we value. Consider the reply above: “…however, if you are obese it is sending the wrong message. You have to model fitness for the ss or you are just another hypocrite.”

See the subtle shift there? Obese is equated with non-fit. Obese is also used as an extreme, polarizing term followed by hyperbole. The fit definition we have explored says NOTHING about size, or weight. Sneaky segway here – why do we focus on how PE teachers look instead of what they can do?

Weightism: “…the assumption or belief individuals of a certain weight or body size are superior – intellectually, morally, physically – to those who exceed the ideal weight or body size.” (Morimoto, 2008)

We really need to stop judging people’s health and fitness by how they look. Just. Stop. Humans come in all shapes and sizes and fitness can look different. Exercise and physical activity are FULL of benefits – weight loss is not always one of them – and should not be the main reason to move more. Move to feel good, be healthy, play with your kids, etc. Obesity is a complex issue, let’s not try and over simplify. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the importance of physical activity for those who are considered overweight (BMI from 25-25.9) or obese (BMI>30).

Aside: I don’t have the time or space right now to deal with all the issues around using BMI as an individual health measure. Short version. Don’t use BMI as a measure of individual health. Long version – check out this post.

The article begins by citing a recent study entitled Physical activity and all-cause mortality across levels of overall and abdominal adiposity in European men and women: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC) – sweet acronym! The study followed European men and women for an average of 12.4 years and included a total of 4,154,915 person years (p. 1) – wow!

The main finding I’ll share is this: “The hypothetical number of deaths reduced by avoiding inactivity in this population may be double that with an approach that avoided high BMI and similar to that of an approach that avoided high WC” (p. 8)

Takeway messages for us in PE?

  • Focus on helping our students lead healthy active lives
  • Don’t stress (or cause stress) about weight.

To further explore this idea, let me introduce you to two women (whom I have never met…) who I think can shed some much needed light.

Lauren Morimoto – Lecturer in Kinesiology and PE at California State University East Bay (now at Sonoma State, I think!)

I “met” Lauren while researching autoethnography. Her peer-reviewed article brought me to tears and opened my eyes. I highly encourage you to find it and read it.

Morimoto, L. (2008) Teaching as transgression: The autoethnography of a fat physical education instructor. Proteus, 25 (2), p.29-36.

Until you can, here is a snippet of her opening poem entitled, This Girl (my apologies for the blurriness).


Mirna Valerio – Spanish teacher and cross country running coach at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, author of the brilliant blog Fat Girl Running.

I only just stumbled upon Mirna’s blog through the WSJ article but she is one funny, talented writer and I am guessing also a pretty amazing teacher and coach! Her posts range from sharing her love of running: There is a sort of primal quality to it that, while it isn’t for everyone–especially those new to trail-running, inspires you to appreciate those trails that are not fantastically weird or scary. You must extend your hands, feet, and heart in friendship to the forest, and it in turn, will befriend you.

To clothing advice: Many of us larger ladies have some issues finding workout clothing that is 1) comfortable and 2) does not make us feel (or look) like a link of brats that is about to explode, or a bear in a big, ugly tent.  This is a major conundrum that must be dealt with or it might cause us to have an excuse to not get out there and be badass as we should be doing everyday.

To the rant that caught my attention – Haters Gonna Hate: A Rant, is harsh, personal and brilliant. You should read it. Now. After setting the context: So this post is for all you haters out there. And let me apologize on BEHALF OF YOU to YOUR BODY, for you projecting your own insecurity and feeling of inadequacy on others. Mirna then responds to stuff people have said to her. Here is a short peek:

You might wanna stop running so much. For a big girl like you, you may be better off on the elliptical or like, playing tennis.
Why are you so concerned? Last time I checked, getting any exercise is better than getting no exercise. Do you know what’s more dangerous on the knees and heart? Not doing anything. And by the way, my joints are just fine. But my brain hurts trying to explain basic shit to you.

Don’t you feel weird going into a gym-you know, cuz everyone’s a size zero and you’re not?
Thanks for pointing out the obvious. So perceptive of you. What gym do YOU go to? That apparently is not my gym because although my gym has its share of meat-heads, there are tons of different body types, goals, people, sizes.


I hope to some day meet both of these fabulous ladies. Maybe go walzing. Maybe go for a run. To go back to the question of whether PE teachers should be fit – yes, yes they should.

Fit like Lauren.

Fit like Mirna.