I didn’t always hate gym class.
During elementary school, I maintained the delusion that if I tried as hard as I could, I’d hit the ball instead of flinching at it. If I ran as fast as I could, I’d win the 100-yard-dash on Track and Field Day.
By middle school, when gym began to include lockers and showers and bullying, I gave up. I still dressed out and hustled and did whatever the gym teacher said I should do, because I was that kind of student—but I did it badly, was made fun of, and (like many seventh-graders before me) decided I wasn’t a Gym Person.
In my junior year of high school, a new gym teacher saved my butt—literally. If we didn’t want to play flag football or basketball or whatever sport he’d set up for the day, we could walk the track. I began taking 90-minute walks twice a week, realized how mentally refreshing a long walk could be, and kept up the habit long after that gym class ended.
This year I picked up a new gym habit: Les Mills classes at the YMCA.
If you aren’t familiar with the Les Mills method, it’s essentially a cross-training system: one day you do weights, one day you do Pilates, one day you do cardio, etc. I started with just the weights class because I read Casey Johnston’s Ask a Swole Woman columns and thought I’d try weightlifting, and now I take all of them.
Here is what I’ve learned:
I love gym.
I did not expect to become a Gym Person. I never imagined myself voluntarily purchasing a YMCA membership. I’d always been “reasonably physically active,” in the sense that I walk and I bike and I do yoga, but I’d strategically avoided the kind of physical activity that makes you sweat.
Now I love it.
What changed? Probably the fact that we’re all adults now, and nobody’s bullying anyone else, and none of these activities involve a ball being thrown at my face. (I still have a chipped front tooth from a sixth grade gym class and a basketball I couldn’t block.)
Here’s what hasn’t changed:
I am still bad at gym.
When our teacher says “run,” I am always at the back of the pack. When she says “sprint,” I can only get halfway across the room. There are some activities I do pretty well (like tuck jumps), and others that I do extremely poorly (like lunge jumps).
I have made some small improvements since I started Les Mills classes, mostly in the amount of weight I can bench and press and squat. I do not see myself ever becoming a better runner, nor do I predict that I’ll be able to increase the speed at which I currently burpee (I can only do one in the time everyone else can complete two).
I do not care—and more importantly, no one else cares either. The Les Mills ethos, as our teacher keeps reminding us, is “keep moving.” The Les Mills system includes a number of options for people at varying levels of fitness and ability; if you aren’t running today, for example, you can always jog or walk. If you can’t do a particular exercise, you can march in place until it’s time for the next one. Just keep moving, and fitness will happen.
Which brings me to:
I have gotten more physically fit than I previously thought possible.
My fitness metrics, from resting heart rate to body fat percentage to muscle visibility, have improved dramatically since I started taking Les Mills classes. Despite the fact that I can only do 80 percent of the exercises and am the slowest one at many of them.
This is making me rethink the way we teach people how to be fit—or, for that matter, the way we teach people anything.
There are plenty of kids going into middle school who have already decided that they aren’t a Gym Person or a Math Person or a Music Person or a Writing Person. There are plenty of adults who realize they like group fitness classes a lot more than flag football, or that they can play most of the pop songs out there by learning four (okay, six) chords on the guitar. Why can’t we start teaching this kind of stuff—low-stakes, do what you can, just keep moving classes—to young people?
The first obvious reason is that adults who take group fitness classes want to be there, while young people rarely have a choice. This means you need external stakes to keep young students motivated, e.g. grades and peer-to-peer rankings (even though many students ignore that type of motivation and spend their school days checked out).
The second obvious reason is that we want to give at least some students the opportunity to master a subject. Yes, a lot of that mastery happens outside of the classroom, whether in sports practice sessions, private piano lessons, or robotics clubs, but—well, I can play six self-taught chords on the guitar. I had sixteen years of piano lessons. There is a huge difference in mastering vs. dabbling.
The third obvious reason is that I can’t find a good analogue for math. Sure, you can do 80% of the math you need in life once you understand basic arithmetic, the same way you can play 80% of the pop songs out there once you learn four-to-six chords. But you can get physically fit without being able to do a lunge jump. You can’t learn algebra without learning algebra.
I don’t know where to go from here—like, there’s no way I can legitimately make pompous statements about education reform, the only classes I teach are group writing classes for adults who want to be there—but now that I’ve discovered how much fun gym can be, with the team camaraderie and the pumping soundtrack and the teacher who encourages us to keep moving, just keep moving, I feel kind of cheated.
Now that I know that gym class doesn’t have to be terrible, even for the haplessly slow and uncoordinated, it makes me wonder why I wasn’t able to get that experience as a child—and whether other educational experiences can be made less terrible as well. ❤️