Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Heisman Trophy Winner: Physical Education Saved My Life

By Herschel Walker — May 10, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

My father gave me a quarter every day before school when I was little so that I could buy myself a snack.

But I wouldn’t buy a snack. Instead, I gave the quarter to a classmate, just to get someone to talk to me without calling me “dumb” or “weird” or “fat.”

I was a chubby kid with no confidence. I was bullied, called names, and beaten up. I barely spoke because of my stutter. Teachers would put me in a corner and tell me I was “special.” I was scared to death of everybody.

My saving grace was physical education.

Physical activity became my refuge. Being active was a healthy way to channel my frustration and insecurities.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Physical education gave me so much: focus, purpose, hope. Those elements helped turn that scared little boy into an accomplished athlete, a valedictorian, and the successful businessman I am today.

Without physical education, I wouldn’t have learned many of the skills that improved my life both on and off the football field. These skills remain with me, fueling my advocacy for all children to reap the same benefits from physical education that I did.

P.E. can help children who face many different challenges in and out of school. It can benefit kids of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.

That’s why I’ve been a proud champion for physical education for more than 15 years. I believe that physical education can be a catalyst for positive change in a child’s life, just as it was in mine. Research shows that quality physical education can help build health, confidence, and better academic outcomes. Quality P.E. teaches physical-literacy skills and healthy habits that last a lifetime.

Yet, despite being in the midst of a full-blown inactivity epidemic, our country isn’t embracing physical education.

How bad is this epidemic? Nearly three-fourths of American youths aren’t getting the 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by health experts.

The results are deadly. Research reported by the sports-leader group Champions for America’s Future, of which I am a member, shows that one in every 10 premature deaths in the United States is the result of inactivity, owing to ailments that include heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Problems related to inactivity also contribute to the fact that seven out of 10 young adults can’t qualify for military service in this country. In addition, a lack of physical activity costs our economy an estimated $117 billion annually.

If we want to give children a path to better health and improved academic outcomes, while also pushing back against the inactivity epidemic, we need to invest in quality P.E.

Physical education can help fight those results. Getting children to embrace healthy habits makes a difference. Research indicates that the longer kids stay active during childhood, the more likely they are to be active when they’re adults. In fact, young people who are active throughout adolescence are roughly seven to 13 times more likely to remain active as adults.

Disappointingly, physical education has become harder to find in school settings over the past decade. According to a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of schools that require students to take physical education for graduation or promotion to the next grade level declined from 96 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2014.

We need to reverse this trend and teach these lifelong skills.

We need to commit adequate resources and class time to P.E. We need to maintain appropriate teacher-student ratios. We need to foster high-quality instruction that teaches children how to enjoy living active lives, not merely how to play certain sports.

The benefits of making that investment will travel beyond the gymnasium and into the classroom: Studies have shown that physical activity can improve academic performance and mental health.

One study found that an after-school program providing an hour or two of physical activity significantly improved participating children’s working memory, a key component of learning, reasoning, and comprehension. Another study showed that incorporating 20 minutes of physical activity into the school day significantly improved test scores in reading, math, and spelling.

The case for investing in P.E. is compelling, and Congress has the perfect opportunity to take action very soon when lawmakers craft a bill for federal spending for the upcoming fiscal year. The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act, an education law that promotes academic opportunity for all children, authorized a $1.6 billion grant program to support a variety of services, including physical education programs.

This is the year for Congress to seize the moment to recognize the important, positive impacts physical education has on health and academic performance. Congress should fully fund and embrace the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program to support vital programs like P.E.

This funding is crucial for making P.E. possible in more communities across the nation, especially because, according to one survey, the average physical education program receives only $764 per year from the school budget.

If we want to give children a path to better health and improved academic outcomes, while also pushing back against the inactivity epidemic, we need to invest in quality physical education. It can change the life of a young person.

How do I know it can change lives?

Because it saved mine.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Quality Physical Education Is a Life Changer

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion To Boost Student Mental Health, Support Teachers
Once extra federal aid vanishes, teachers will be faced with serving in the role as ill-equipped mental health professionals.
Beth Fisher
4 min read
Screenshot 2024 04 14 at 9.54.39 PM
Canva
Student Well-Being Opinion Farewell: Ask a Psychologist Says Goodbye
Angela Duckworth announces the sunsetting of the Character Lab and the Education Week Opinion blog.
3 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being What’s Really Holding Schools Back From Implementing SEL?
Principals see their schools as places that promote students' social-emotional growth.
4 min read
Vector of a professional dressed in a suit and tie and running in a hurry while multitasking with a laptop, a calendar, a briefcase, a clipboard, a cellphone, and a wrench in each of his six hands.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being What This School Used as the Main Ingredient for a Positive Climate
When systemic and fully integrated, the practice has the power to reduce bad behavior and boost teacher morale, experts say.
10 min read
Carrie White, a second-grade teacher, makes a heart with her hands for her student, Tyrell King-Harrell, left, during an SEL exercise at Yates Magnet Elementary School in Schenectady, N.Y., on March 28, 2024.
Carrie White, a 2nd grade teacher, makes a heart with her hands for her student, Tyrell King-Harrell, left, during an SEL exercise at Yates Magnet Elementary School in Schenectady, N.Y., on March 28, 2024.
Scott Rossi for Education Week