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Kids, PE Class, and Motivation: What Matters?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

When Do Kids Stop Liking PE?

A group of researchers in Switzerland studied a group of 1,200 kids age 8-12 for two years to determine their feelings about their physical education (PE) classes. The researchers launched the study to examine possible explanations for the worldwide trend in youth obesity and overweight. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were over 41 million children under the age of five who met the criteria for obesity.

This trend – if unchecked – means we may see as many as 70 million obese children under the age of five by the year 2025.

That’s just six years from now.

The importance of finding answers and explanations for the increase in childhood obesity over the last several decades lies in fact that children who are overweight or obese are at increased risk of developing health complications as adults, including:

  • High Blood Pressure
  • Impaired glucose tolerance
  • Insulin resistance
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Sleep apnea

In addition, obese or overweight children are at increased risk of:

In Switzerland, where the study took place, the obesity rate for children and 6-12 is 16%.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identifies the following rates for childhood obesity:

  • 9% for kids age 2-5
  • 4% for kids age 6-11 year-olds
  • 6% for pre-adolescents/adolescents age 12-19

All these statistics – and the fact that childhood obesity can lead to health problems later in life – indicate that we need to understand why obesity rates are rising. Anyone who reads the news or pays even scant attention to the media knows all about obesity and how to battle it: exercise (150 minutes per week), healthy food (more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than processed food or fast food), and regular sleep.

But all that does not seem to be working.

Another Possible Explanation

We know we’re supposed to exercise, eat right, and get plenty of sleep, otherwise we’ll probably develop health problems.

Since that’s common knowledge, the researchers in Switzerland took a different angle on obesity. They examined something novel: rather than looking at the behavior of the children, i.e. whether they got enough activity during the day or during PE class, they looked at what motivated the kids to practice the physical activities they encountered during PE.

The seven-point motivational scale they used posed questions about why kids wanted to improve in PE. They asked questions like:

Do you want to improve…

…for your health?

….to learn something new?

…for enjoyment?

…to get a good grade in PE class?

…to satisfy peers, parents, or teachers?

…to avoid guilt or shame?

The answers were surprising. They found that around age 9, kids’ reasons for doing well in PE shifted from productive to counter-productive. According to the researchers:

“Our results showed for the first time that there is a sharp drop in positive motivations for physical activity, such as pleasure or health, over a child’s time at primary school from age 9 onwards.”

The study revealed that after age 9, motivations shifted away from things like learning and health to things like getting a good grade or to impressing classmates. Study authors acknowledged that regardless of the motivation, activity is activity, and activity benefits anyone who participates. However, they rebut that point of fact with a valuable insight:

“It’s true that harmful motivations do also mean that a child is physically active but these motivational qualities are only positive in the short term…we know that if children are motivated by good reasons when they’re young, then they’ll remain active when they’re adults.”

This begs the question: how do we keep kids motivated for positive reasons?

The Way We Teach Matters

The authors of the study then examined the structure of PE classes in Switzerland, searching for reasons kids’ motivations might change halfway through elementary school. Their fundamental, operating point of view: productive habits, learned young, are likely to persist into adulthood. A corollary to that is that positive habits backed by productive motivations – when learned young – are even more likely to persist into adulthood than habits backed by non-productive motivations.

What they found in Switzerland mirrors something most of us in the U.S. are familiar with: PE classes are not what they used to be:

“PE teaching has changed enormously. Classes are more academic, with children learning about rules, motor functioning, mutual support, etc.”

In short, PE classes are less about the physical and more about the education. Which is fine, of course, as long as kids get the exercise they need outside of school. But they don’t – not in Switzerland, and not in the United States.

The Swiss researchers may have found something very important: not only do kids need more PE time at school, they need their PE time to be about getting vigorous activity, as opposed to taking another academic class that requires them to sit still.

We’ll sum all this up by saying we couldn’t agree more: PE needs to be fun again.

That’s something we can all agree with.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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