Academic Poll: Mens Sana in Corpore Sano?

This Slate story on the number of Americans who can't swim was kind of surprising to me:

In a 1994 CDC study, 37 percent of American adults said they couldn't swim 24 yards, the length of a typical gymnasium lap pool. A 2008 study conducted by researchers at the University of Memphis found that almost 54 percent of children between 12 and 18 can do no more than splash around the shallow end of a pool. The difference between the two studies is somewhat surprising, as the CDC study suggested that children tend to be better swimmers than adults.

Having grown up in a town that features a large-ish lake, and attended a (public) school where the mandatory gym classes included swim lessons, I always kind of thought that swimming was something that everyone learned at some point. I certainly wouldn't've guessed the percentage of people who couldn't swim at all at even a third, let alone half.

This reminded me that my undergrad alma mater included a swim test as one of the requirements for graduation (supposedly as a result of a bequest by some wealthy donor whose child had drowned, though that sort of story attaches to any little quirk at a private college). It wasn't much of a test-- I did it in the first week of my freshman year, and it consisted of swimming across the width of the pool, then treading water for something like a minute-- but every year or two somebody doesn't get a diploma because they didn't take the swim test.

The swim test is a subset of the general subject of phys ed requirements, which Williams also had. This was also not terribly onerous-- I played rugby, which took care of most of it, and I got the two additional credits I needed by taking the same PE golf class twice (I'm still a mediocre-to-terrible golfer, for what it's worth)-- but again, some students fail to graduate every year because they haven't completed the phys ed requirements.

Which seems like a good if roundabout way to get to a reader poll: Should colleges and universities require some physical education component from their students?

As a bonus, feel free to leave a comment describing any funny/scary/annoying aspects of whatever phys ed program you may have had to go through.


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Phys ed requirements at high schools and colleges are a monumental waste of time at the very best. They seem to be based on some sort of delusion that compelling students to play some sport for a couple of hours a week will somehow instill in them a lifelong love of physical activity and devotion to health. While someone (not me) might be able to make some argument to mandate real, vigorous physical activity (e.g. rugby, swimming, dancing, etc.), the fact that these requirements can be so readily met by participating in pseudo-sports that are just a hair shy of being completely sedentary, like golf or target shooting (the class that one of my former bosses used to get out of the P.E. requirement at the University of Arkansas), completely undermines any argument about promoting health.

These requirements probably do about as much to promote the good physical development of students as the (thankfully, now rare) chapel requirements did to promote their spiritual and moral development.

I was waffling between somewhat silly and a nice idea. Years ago when my grandmother was in college several PE courses were required. I guess the idea was that a well rounded, college educated wife should know how to play tennis, golf, and swim? (I'm not sure those were specifically required courses or just the ones Granny took.) Today I'm not sure of what the goal of PE requirements really is.

Swimming is an important skill, imo. Many people go splashing around in lakes or the ocean, out on boats without life jackets, etc. without being able to swim or tread water. And people drown because of it. Unfortunately in many places, depending on SES, learning to swim isn't an option.

Slightly random aside - 24 yards? I'm pretty sure every (non-hotel) pool I've been in was 25 yds, 25 m, or 50m. Closer to my HS swimming career I could tell if a pool was 25 yds or m. My alma mater's rec center's pool was 25 yards long to prevent teams from wanting to rent it for practice. Are gyms making their pools really non-standard? Why?

By marciepooh (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

"Math requirements at high schools and colleges are a monumental waste of time at the very best. They seem to be based on some sort of delusion that compelling students to pass a couple of math classes will somehow instill in them a lifelong mathematical competence."

As someone who taught calculus once upon a time, saw how the non-tech majors took watered-down courses to meet a minimal math requirement, and observes today how many college graduates are mathematically incompetent, it would be pretty easy for me to succumb to that expression of futility. What fraction of college graduates, twenty years on, could state the fundamental theorem of calculus, much less make use of the concepts taught? I suspect hoping for as much as 5% is a pipe dream. Educators know their influence lies mostly with a slim number of students, and marginally on the larger body. I think Chad was fortunate to attend a university that had a PE requirement. Mine did, also. Though I suspect it has since gone by the wayside.

My first thought is that there are going to be some people unable to complete a PE requirement due to physical restrictions. For example in my high school (back in '73) a number of the girls were pregnant, one had a broken leg, and several had more permanent physical handicaps.

If a PE requirement exists, then there will be dispute as to what constitutes a valid reason not to complete those requirements. This results in unnecessary lawsuits when the inevitable disagreements occur.

By Canadian Curmudgeon (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

From a friend who was a Caltech student: "Caltech may or may not be the only School in the world to require quantum mechanics of all its undergraduates. But it's definitely the only school in the world where the phys ed requirement is more feared than the quantum mechanics requirement."

(Probably not true, but amusing...)

I selected "nice idea," but mostly because the PE requirement at my undergrad certainly didn't stop anyone from sitting around and drinking beer.

I have yet to figure out what the argument for having a PE requirement actually was, since I fulfilled mine with a combination of bowling, aikido, archery, social dance, and aerobics. Only two of those actually left me sweating by the end of the class. On the other hand, if well-roundedness is the argument, then I think it is a fairly successful program. I could have done without my particular dance instructor, but I'm happy to have taken each of those classes.

Still, though, it is an expense.

I grew up in a desert (Northern Nevada), the nearest significant body of water was 25 miles and 1300 vertical feet away (Lake Tahoe), my school had no pool or swim team, and my parents couldn't be bothered to drive me to school functions, much less the nearest community pool (15 miles away). When was I supposed to learn how to swim?

My high school gym classes had performance requirements for grading, including sprinting and cross-country running. This did not discriminate against straight-legged or bow-legged students, but it killed a knock-kneed student's chances of earning a straight-A record.

We were also required to vault over a 'horse' into a somersault without first learning how to do it. They later abandoned this requirement after a kid broke his neck.

By Rose Colored Glasses (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

It has to be a good idea at Big State U. It gives the PE grad students jobs being TA's.

By natual cynic (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

I think the only good argument for a PE requirement is well roundedness, although I don't like that argument myself.

I support mandatory PE up to high school, when the students are still kids. At that point you should be teaching them how to do things properly, and hopefully instilling a love of physical activity. But in college, students are adults and should be given the right to choose if they want to be active. And what they do to be physically active, whether its taking a class, or running/swimming/lifting weights on their own or joining some type of team.

There are actually two separate issues here. Swimming is a specific skill, and one that can save your life in the most proximate manner possible. Kids should learn to swim. Period. Maybe difficult to force, but it shouldn't be difficult to encourage. (We already know that the inability to swim doesn't keep people from going into the water. Hence the vast disparity in drowning deaths based on access and cultural attitudes towards swimming.)

PE is a longer and more inclusive process. If it teaches skills and inculcates a love for physical activity, it can improve your quality of life in many ways. The problem is that, like many other school subjects, it's only rarely taught that way. When I was in K-12, phys ed was pretty much a weed-out course that cemented a hatred for sports and exercise in those of us who weren't already athletic.

I think it's a good idea to keep PE in the curriculum, by the way. (My late FIL was a PE teacher, and a very good one.) But it has to be treated as a serious approach towards promoting healthy activity. If schools take it seriously and treat it as an important part of education, maybe students will do the same.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

I think one of the reasons for the requirement isn't so much to force students to become more physically fit while in school, but, rather, to introduce the idea to them that there are various kinds of sports that are compatible with an intellectual lifestyle, which will be of importance to them as they age. For example, you're not likely to see very many 50 year old engineers, chemists, physicists, doctors, etc. playing football, but you may see quite a few of them bowling, playing tennis, golfing, or even participating in archery.

As for swimming, I sink. It seems that I have a body density which is significantly greater than water, so, when I go into water, I go straight to the bottom. The only way I can stay on the surface is if I keep my lungs completely (and, I do mean completely) full of air. Thus, the only way I can swim is on my back. But, I can float and swim like this for hours (although it's not very comfortable).


we had a yearly swim test in high school in the 80's.

the first year we did it, they had everyone swim counter clockwise around the pool. for like 10 minutes. with 50 or 60 students all swimming the same direction, a giant whirlpool was set up. if you treaded water, you were dragged along by the current! you could even see how the edges of the pool were deeper than the middle. the people who couldn't swim well *loved* it. they just floated on their backs and were dragged around effortlessly.

the next year they had everyone swim up and down the lanes. no free rides on a whirlpool anymore.

I went to a college with a swim test requirement for graduation. It was not much of a test. You either had to get from one end of the gym's pool to the other somehow, or you had to take a one-semester how-to-swim course, which was pass-fail and the only way to fail it was if you skipped too many classes. The exact attendance requirement was documented in the course catalog.

Having grown up in a house with a swimming pool, this was a barely-noticeable hurdle, but I knew one guy who was so terrified of swimming that he put off the how-to-swim course until his very last semester at the university and then skipped the maximum number of classes at the beginning of the term; he literally could not make himself attend unless he had no other choice.

I recall discussing next semester's classes with my adviser, and expressing an interest in taking karate.

He told me that the department encourages all its students to take PE... but doesn't count them as credits towards graduation.

Some encouragement :/

(ECE at Carnegie Mellon)

By Dale Sheldon-Hess (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

As a graduate student who has spent a significant amount of time and effort minimizing the visibility of a relatively minor disability I view this as, at best, another paperwork hurdle to waste time and energy on. I could probably get exempted, but spending a couple of days mucking about with getting a doctor's note and dealing with the red tape is not a prospect I contemplate with any joy.

Drawing attention to my lack of physical abilities is another drawback since, ironically, with enough time spent working out I can pass as an average couch potato.

I'm sure it would be beneficial for some people but to others--anyone with physical problems equal to or greater than my own--it's just one more thing on the list of hurdles to navigate. Getting to/from my classes is usually a much more daunting prospect than taking the exams.

I confess; I can't swim. There were no lakes to splash around in, and the public swimming pool was about 12 miles away when I was growing up. I took swimming lessons a couple of times, but swimming lessons a week or so of swimming lessons don't work if you don't ever get a chance to practice after that. I'm also quite claustrophobic, and hate putting my face in water.

My daughter, OTOH, can swim quite well, because I put the effort into making sure she could, by putting her in swim lessons early and often and getting her to a pool to swim a lot. But it took time, effort and money on my part to make it happen.

I didn't mean to suggest that not knowing how to swim was some sort of moral failing or anything like that. It's an example of how my own upbringing inclines me to think about things a certain way, that's all.

I don't know what to make of the fact that I have more beings of pure intellect than beer drinkers reading this (9-7 at the time of this comment).

I voted for the "really bad idea" category, mostly because I was worrying about the edge-case exemptions. For instance, is my friend with really sensitive skin exempted swimming because the chlorine will leave her in pain? Am I exempted high-impact sports given my history of tendon injuries, at least while they heal? (I spent most of my school career playing sport on partially healed injuries - to the extent that I went on hiking with a sprain with crepitus without realising this was a bad idea.)

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

I'm not surprised at those statistics, because many K-12 systems have basically eliminated organized recess and PE requirements in favor of studying for the high-stakes graduation test of your choice. Even in my day, you could skip the HS PE requirement if you were in choir or band.

My university had a PE requirement when I started, but abolished it. I did learn to play racquetball, but the only lifetime sports I know were picked up as a kid, outside of school.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

Students at my university are required to take 2 semesters of physical education. They can fulfill this requirement with classes such as Walking 1 and Walking 2. My vote is therefore that PE requirements are a nice idea, but ultimately a waste of time, especially because that beer isn't going to drink itself and the walking instructor probably frowns on Camelbacks full of booze.

By The Disgruntle… (not verified) on 06 Aug 2010 #permalink

Back in the dark ages ('67-'71) Harvard had an undergraduate phys ed requirement: 2 semesters of doing something physical. Even tho this requirement could be satisfied by just about any form of organized physical activity, I only completed about 3 quarters of it.

The harsh consequences of my dereliction? My transcript was endorsed "Did not complete physical education requirement".

By John Casey (not verified) on 06 Aug 2010 #permalink

did you go to Swarthmore? Sounds like the swim test I took in '97. My ex, incidentally, couldn't swim at all, and the day before he graduated he went down to the gym and told them that. They put him in the water and asked him to dog-paddle 10 yards--he couldn't--they gave him a kickboard and had him do a lap with it--he struggled through that--and they told him to never go near water again, and let him graduate.

By Catherine (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink