Colleges Should Require Phys Ed Classes

Some of the fondest memories I have of college was taking phys ed courses. East Stroudsburg required each student to take three phys ed courses in order to graduate, and being a varsity athlete did not exempt anyone from the requirement. I took racquetball, fencing, and yoga. In fact I took all three of them the same semester, so I basically wore gym clothes all day, every day. My wife-to-be took skiing, ice dancing, and square dancing (I was actually her partner for the “final”; despite my having two left feet and no sense of rhythm, Mary still managed to pass the course.)

Unfortunately, not many colleges have a phys ed requirement. A research study from 2013 discovered that in 1920, 97% of four-year colleges required students to take phys ed courses. The most recent data indicates that number is down to 39%.

I doubt if one would see the same change for Math or English classes. Have colleges decided that the education of the body is no longer as important as the education of the mind?

More than 34 percent of adolescents and teens ages 12-19 are overweight and more than 17 percent are obese. These rates have roughly doubled since 1980, according to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report.

Could lack of phys ed courses have anything to do with this sad state of affairs?

Brad Cardinal, lead author of the research study noted above, states, “We see more and more evidence about the benefit of physical activity, not just to our bodies, but to our minds, yet educational institutions are not embracing their own research. It is alarming to see four-year institutions following the path that K-12 schools have already gone down, eliminating exercise as part of the curriculum even as obesity rates climb.”

Cardinal, who is a professor of exercise and sport science at Oregon State University and a national expert on the benefits of physical activity, said research shows that exercise not only improves human health, but it also improves cognitive performance.

“Brain scans have shown that physical activity improves the area of the brain involved with high-level decision making,” he said. “In addition, we know employers often are concerned about employee health, in part because physically active employees attend work more and tend to perform better.”

Cardinal’s own university, Oregon State University, still requires physical education courses. He said requiring physical education sets the tone for students to understand that being active and healthy is as important as reading, writing and math. Cardinal believes even requiring just one or two exercise courses can at least jump-start a student into thinking about a healthy lifestyle as part of their overall college experience and later life.

“There is a remarkable disconnect in that we fund research as a nation showing that physical activity is absolutely critical to academic and life success, but we aren’t applying that knowledge to our own students,” he said.

My school, Villanova University, does not offer any phys ed courses, let alone have any type of phys ed course as a graduation requirement. While many students do some form of exercise on a routine basis, a phys ed requirement helps to target those students who perhaps need it the most but are hesitant to start an exercise program on their own.

I thought I’d share a random sample of colleges I found that require at least one phys ed course as part of the college’s graduation requirements. For whatever reason, it seems as if the classic liberal arts colleges seem to be the most likely to require phys ed courses. One more reason to love the liberal arts…

  • Columbia College at Columbia University: Successful completion of two Physical Education Activities is required for the degree.  All students are also required to pass a swimming test or take beginning swimming for one term to fulfill the swimming requirement.
  • Cornell University: All incoming freshmen are required to take two credits (two courses) of Physical Education, one credit each semester of the first year on campus. The University Faculty Committee on Physical Education has established a basic swimming competency requirement for all entering freshman undergraduates.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): All students are required to complete a minimum of eight points and the swim requirement. Students are expected to complete this requirement by the end of the sophomore year.
  • Swarthmore College: All students not excused for medical reasons are required to complete 4 units of physical education by the end of their sophomore year. In addition, all students must pass a survival swimming test or complete a unit of swimming instruction.
  • Williams College: Students are required to take four credits of physical education by the end of the second year, two of which must be completed in the first year. Our goal is to contribute to the physical, social, mental, and emotional well being of students, enriching their holistic learning experiences and building lifelong habits of good health. Exercise increases physical energy, mental alertness, and self-confidence and has been shown to help foster productivity and creativity.

That’s an impressive list; maybe I should look into how Villanova can be part of such an elite group. After all, what’s there to lose, except for a couple of pounds?

P.S By the way, not everyone agrees with me on this; here’s an article from Philadelphia Magazine that says that requiring phys ed courses in college is stupid.


I guess he would consider Cornell, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and Williams stupid…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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