A short history of how Physical Education lost its way
Of course it’s probably not exactly breaking news that sitting around all day and doing little exercise is bad for our health. We’ve known this forever. Moving is what our bodies yearn to do and by keeping them still all the time they are cheated of the stimulus they need to function properly.
Yet many of us – maybe most of us – still don’t give them what it’s crying out for. If movement (‘exercise’ if you must call it that) is so natural, how come it takes such an unnatural effort to make it a regular part of our lives?
To answer this we’re going to look closer at the uncomfortable introduction that most of us have to the world of physical exercise, examine the unhelpful assumptions that modern exercise is based upon, and look at the background and history that makes today’s ‘keep fit’ culture the painful experience it often is.
A sorry introduction to movement and exercise
Movement and exercise are two of the biggest factors in daily life about which we’ve all been completely led astray by so-called ‘experts’. We’ve been convinced that fitness and strength come only through prolonged pain and hardship – to the point that the mere utterance of the word ‘exercise’ or ‘get fit’ sends a shudder through many a heart.
Far too many people instantly conjure up painful and sometimes traumatic childhood memories of their last failed foray into the world of ‘shorts, T-shirts and gym shoes’. Typically our first (and sometimes only) brush with structured, physical exercise begins aged 5 in school ‘gym’ or ‘games’ classes.
Now if you were one of the competitive kids who really liked organised sport or formal gym, then PE lessons were probably a useful introduction to a lifetime of health and activity. It was more than likely the highlight of your week; a session you found fun and looked forward to. Everybody enjoys activities that come naturally to them and they will keep coming back for more. But unfortunately, for many other children, it was certainly a very different story.
Many kids just hate the style of physical education served up in school: they loathe being lumped together and dread having to run round with other fitter, more physical pupils. They detest having their apparent physical inadequacies and lack of coordination paraded before the world. Many wrongly decide at a very early age that they are obviously physically inferior and that exercise is not for them. An emotional, spur of the moment decision – perhaps triggered by one single, fleetingly bad experience – can result in them jumping to a wrong conclusion at an age when they really shouldn’t be making such life-changing decisions.
As an adult, if you find something that’s not right for you, you have the option to leave it; to walk away and perhaps come back at a later date. For school children it was (and still is) a totally different scenario. They have no option but to run the painful gauntlet of the P.E. lesson, regardless of their fear, humiliation and discomfort.
The problem is aggravated because ‘games’ teachers probably loved their subject when they were a child, and simply don’t understand those children who don’t feel the same way. Like any other more academic subject, teachers are understandably confused and frustrated by those students who don’t throw themselves into their pet subject with the same enthusiasm. The feeling of marginalisation that these children experience in class can last a lifetime and exerts heavy toll on attitudes towards sport, fitness and all physical activity in general.
It is such a shame that bad experiences at school lead to a large percentage of the adult population closing the door on the joy of physical movement and exercise at a very early age. At the very moment they are able to leave school, many stop exercising – and plenty never return!
Exercise must hurt – mustn’t it?
Let’s face it; once our instinctive and very natural taste for running, jumping, lifting and stretching has been cast aside, there are very incentives offered by the health and fitness industries to entice anyone back. Other than the negative guilt served up by the government, press and media, there outwardly appears to be little pleasurable about exercise. How could there be when every workout video, every training DVD, every drill-sergeant-style boot camp screams ‘No pain, no gain!’ and ‘Feel the burn!’?
Who in their right mind would ever choose to put their hand up and eagerly shout: “Oh me, me! I’ll have some of that exquisite torture please”?
The reality is that exercise should never hurt!
Except under very brief and controlled conditions that we’ll cover later, nature intended exercise (i.e. natural human movement) to be stimulating, enjoyable and invigorating – never painful. Of course, if you want to become a competitive athlete, this clear-cut picture does blur somewhat, but for the man or woman in the street who wants…
- Greater strength
- More energy
- Better stamina
- More flexibility
- Better balance
- Greater speed
- And more power
…getting fit does not ever need to make you sweat profusely, puff, pant, wheeze or endure ‘stitches’ and joint and muscle pain!
The problem with the traditional, hard-line school of thought is that it puts most people off from coming back and trying exercise ever again. It’s quite obviously not intentional – why would an industry want to deliberately alienate its customers? It’s just that it’s what the exercise ‘experts’ themselves have been taught. It’s all they know. It’s not only written into their professional curriculum, it’s written into everybody’s shared history and consciousness.
A tiny bit of ‘modern’ history
Societies going back as far as the ancient Greeks, the Spartans and the Romans recognised the importance of adding a regime of exercise to the daily grind. Physical training was held in high esteem by a whole host of cultures who developed various methods of off-setting the damage caused by a lifestyles that were becoming increasingly sedentary and comfortable. What they all had in common was a requirement for battle-ready soldiers and a strong civilian population ready to fight to preserve their freedom if called upon. If soft civilians were the problem, tough training was the answer.
No matter what their area of expertise, today 99% of physical training ‘experts’ can trace their fundamental principles and their professional history back to this sort of very regimented and specialised military training.
Today, military-style “boot camps” are enjoying a strange new lease of life, as sedentary people sign-up to have their independence handed over to a shouting instructor who will repeatedly and repetitively cajole, push and harry them through the pain barrier and past their reluctance to engage in any movement at all. They are encouraged to put their freedom, their feelings of comfort, and their natural sense for what’s good for them to one side, and surrender to the painful routine their well-meaning instructor has lined up.
The drill sergeant in disguise
It’s clear why training has developed like this. This form of exercise was (and still is) part and parcel of the breaking down of civilians and the building up of ‘battle-ready’ soldiers. Tyrannical drill sergeants are tasked with ‘beasting’ soft, lazy and undisciplined ‘raw’ recruits into supremely fit and regimented warriors in a matter of weeks. This means that for the military, exercise is not only the road to physical fitness, but a big stick with which to beat the tardy civilian into a new, fearsome ‘fighting machine’ able to unhesitatingly obey orders and overcome any level of discomfort.
Back when Britain had colonial wars to win, a gradual, gentle, natural road to fitness was never going to deliver the required result in good time, and few of these wars were ever going to be won by an army that made virtue of ‘taking it easy’ and respecting their bodies’ limits.
A new, tougher approach was needed that would push both the recruits’ bodies and minds further than nature ever intended. Stress, injury and health be damned – what was required here was an intensity of training that, to all intents and purposes, shattered the independent spirit who unwittingly took the King’s shilling. This dehumanising process was necessary to build up the red breasted, man-shaped ‘war machine’ the armed forces required. Given its purpose, this pretty brutal style of physical and mental training was enormously successful, producing the sort of military might that helped forge an empire ‘upon which the sun never set’. For better or worse, by 1922 a quarter of the globe was shaded pink and under British rule.
Unfortunately, although this sort of fitness regime is great for moulding soldiers quickly, it’s a complete disaster as a long-term personal fitness strategy. You certainly can get soldiers fit in a few weeks with these methods, especially if you’re not worried about breaking a few on the way. However, keeping this intensity up for longer than a few months is actually impossible and will always result in exhaustion, injury and ill-health over the longer term. Even the military doesn’t try. After 6 weeks or so of exhausting strife, and after the culmination of their basic training, their fitness is maintained mostly by actually doing the job in hand, now a base level of fitness and unity of team spirit has been established.
Any type of military-inspired training camp is a very different kettle of fish indeed to a sustainable lifetime of self-motivated, natural and enjoyable physical activity. But that didn’t stop these drill sergeants – the only 19th century health and fitness experts – from exporting their extensive ‘know how’ away from the drill square to the outside world.
Army boots and webbing turn into gym vests and plimsolls
Long before there was an established, accredited ‘health and leisure’ industry, many British public schools’ (as the oldest private schools in the UK are known) with regimental ties took a role in preparing their young charges for a more-than-likely career in military service. Later, when grammar and comprehensive schools were established, many adopted the ‘games’ and training techniques of these older schools into their own curriculum. In time, both the ethos and methods of military training permeated through society to reach everybody and become the only accepted route to physical fitness. A training style that was possible only for a few weeks at a time – and only really suitable for moulding soldiers into fighting units – became the accepted approach for everyone, even those looking for a sustainable, effective, enjoyable approach to exercise that would last a lifetime. In this way, military-style physical training slipped into our schools and then into all of our lives by the back door.
And so the die was cast: Fitness and health wrongly became synonymous with pain, with graft, with labour and with toil.
Underneath the Lycra
Sure, if this shouting, screaming, gnashing of teeth road to fitness floats your boat, then by all means sign on the dotted line and pay someone to thrash you into shape. There’s loads of choice: underneath the enticing and attractive lycra, leg warmers, Nike shoes and smile of your modern ‘spinning’, Boxercise and Zumba classes – still beats the steely heart of 19th century military tyrant.
The Instinctive approach is a little difference. Instead of focusing on results and pain, we look for ways to make movement and exercise enjoyable again. We certainly appreciate sports – soccer, cricket, rugby and all the usual suspects – but we recognise that these often come with drawbacks if pursued too seriously and to the exclusion of other forms of movement. Here we’re big fans of running, jumping, climbing, balancing, fighting, swimming, crawling and all manner of other challenges that reflect activities and movements that humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years. We’re also big fans of keeping it fun and varied. Whether you’re off to your local climbing wall, scampering through the forest, about to wrestle your brother to the ground or just about to try crawling across your living room carpet for the first time, if you’ve got a smile on your face and you’re ready to challenge yourself and your body then you’re our sort of person!