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My first semester at college was also my first introduction to weight training. To fulfill my school’s three-class physical education requirement, I signed up for a free weights class taught by the head football coach. It was daunting at the time, but eventually I learned how to use a rack of free weights and more importantly, to ask for help when I didn’t know what to do. These days I’m not exactly a champion powerlifter, but I find myself always coming back to the simple curls, flys, and triceps kickbacks that Coach Tracy taught me in the gym five years ago.

My enlightening experience as a college freshman is getting more rare, though. Institutions of higher learning offer courses like The History of Surfing, Mixology 101, and The Sociology of Salsa, but a new national study shows that old school phys ed seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

Endangered PE — The Need-to-Know

A recent Oregon State University study culled data from 354 randomly selected colleges and universities across the country. Ninety-seven percent of the schools had mandatory physical education requirements in 1920, but that stat has shrunk to just 39 percent as of 2012. The relatively limited data set is, however, representative of a nationwide trend. Gym class is falling by the wayside even in elementary, middle, and high schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that only 29 percent of high school students throughout the country participated in at least one 60-minute period of physical activity in a given week.

According to the CDC, nearly 36 percent of American adults and 17 percent of youth are significantly overweight. By 2018 obesity-related costs are expected to skyrocket to $190 billion annually and take up 21 percent of the country’s health care budget.

So are disappearing college gym requirements a sign of modernity (or modern budgets, at least) or the health equivalent of hiding our heads in the sand? With obesity rates around the country soaring, it might be wiser to invest in teaching students the importance of health and exercise through physical education. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Gym Class Hero — The Answer/Debate

College is a time to explore living alone and develop adult habitsObesity on Campus. Sparling PB. School of Applied Physiology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2007 July;4(3):A72.. Some of those habits should include physical activity or exercise. It’s not a university’s job to hand-hold but given the epic scale of America’s obesity problem, every bit helps, especially when it involves students: one study found that people who get into the habit of exercising as young adults are less likely to develop inactivity-related diseases throughout their adult livesCollege physical education: an unrecognized agent of change in combating inactivity-related diseases. Sparling PB. School of Applied Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 2003 Fall; 46(4):579-87.. Keeping PE on the higher education menu isn’t just about BMI. Studies show that regular physical activity improves cognition and decision-making, as well as boosts overall happinessExercise is brain food: the effects of physical activity on cognitive function. Ploughman M. Developmental Neurorehabilitation. 2008 Jul; 11(3):236-40..

The irony is that many universities are doing groundbreaking research on the causes and effects of obesity are also cutting their physical education requirements. Why not practice what they preach? The Oregon State (which still has mandatory PE for all students, by the way) researchers pointed to budgets and a focus on “real” courses as the main reasons why walking the PE walk is often neglected.

While fitness-inclined students will doubtlessly seek out gym class alternatives like the campus fitness center or outdoor track, a PE requirement could make a big difference for a non-athlete. Sure, the gym scene can be intimidating to a newbie — I know I never would have approached the weight bench if I didn’t have to take a gym class to fulfill my Phys Ed requirement. But providing students with fitness knowledge and experience can prep them for a more productive, balanced lifestyle — even after they leave the ivy-covered walls of universityDifferential effects of acute and regular physical exercise on cognition and affect. Hopkins ME, Davis FC, Vantieghem MR, Whalen PJ, Bucci DJ. Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA. Neuroscience. 2012 Jul 26;215:59-68..

Do you think physical education should be part of a college education? Let us know what you think in the comments below or tweet the author at @SophBreene.

Photo by Anders Illum