Proper health education often falls by the wayside in school PE classes. This is not to say that these classes aren’t helpful. In fact, some data would suggest that they remain necessary. Only a few years ago, a USA Today report on physical education cited studies concluding that PE “is key to longer, happier lives.” While there are some real concerns with how PE is taught, and how it can impact children differently in their social lives and development, the pure health benefits are difficult to deny.
To summarize, the studies indicate that kids in PE classes are significantly more likely to lead and maintain active lifestyles — which in turn goes a long way toward combating childhood obesity and negative long-term habits. While boosts in physical activity are evident and beneficial, it is also clear that many PE classes miss the mark when it comes to more comprehensive health education. In other words, PE encourages kids to be more active, but it does little to educate them on why this is beneficial, or what other habits they could be practicing to lead healthy lifestyles.
So, why should health education as a component of PE matter?
The clearest answer is that a more comprehensive approach to health education makes for a more effective PE course. In fact, research from a health education professor at the University of Texas led to the conclusion that PE typically needs to be “multifaceted and holistic” if it’s to be effective. This means incorporating education on, among other things, “healthy-living and nutrition” on top of the more conventional “gym class.” The research in question simply found that a raw focus on physical activity had less of an impact on overall, long-term health.
In a more general sense, including health education is also an effective means of teaching children self-assessment in a way that can benefit their long-term wellness. ‘The Power of Self-Assessment” in children is extensive and applies to numerous aspects of their development. But it can undoubtedly spur improvement and the formation of good habits where health is concerned. Daily PE instills an almost subconscious desire in kids to be active; it makes it normal to have physical activity each day. But teaching health concepts will give them things to consciously reflect on, Children undergoing health education will learn to consider what they’re eating, what general health habits they’re practicing, and so on.
These benefits are easy to understand and difficult to dispute. But how can PE instructors and school systems more broadly get to a point at which health education is part of the program?
One answer in the near future might be to employ more school nurses as resources for existing PE and health teachers. Far beyond our school systems, a deep and wide-ranging need for more nurses is leading to a big push for a broader workforce. Alongside traditional nursing schools, online programs are now aiding this effort and helping to prepare countless candidates for a whole range of specific careers related to nursing. Again, this is happening regardless of any need in schools specifically. At the same time however, the nursing careers listed on Maryville University do happen to show some positions that would be useful to supplement health education in schools. These include public health nurses (typically hired for non-profits or community health centers) or nurse educators (who are actually qualified to teach entire health-related courses). To be clear, these roles are not suited to replace existing health or physical fitness education in schools. But as we continue to see more graduates focusing on these disciplines, it may be that more schools will hire nurses, in part to assist PE and health teachers with additional elements of education.
Aside from pointed, specific moves like hiring nurses or similarly qualified health educators though, what we need to see is more of a philosophical shift in how schools approach this topic. Once again, the benefits of physical education are clear — but they are limited. Should school administrators recognize this and make a decision to blend PE with instruction relating to nutrition and personal health, it will be a meaningful step toward improving the long-term wellness of students. This decision could lead to different specific changes in different schools. Some might simply equip PE teachers with materials and information to conduct health education; some may hire nurses or similarly qualified professionals; others still may rely largely on texts or digital materials to further health education.
Whatever the specific results though, recognizing and acting on the need for more comprehensive health education in PE is vital to our children’s health and lifestyles.
Rhian Jenn is an online physical education instructor who believes in an interdisciplinary approach when it comes to teaching students. She’s currently working on her PhD in adapted physical education.