Welcome to the most important class you will ever take in high school.
Every year, this is my standard introduction for new students in my High School Weight Training Class. My statement is met with a few smiles or laughs by the students. It has been ingrained in them that Math, Science, and English are the cornerstones of their high school education. After all, those are the subjects that make up their standardized testing. Those are the subjects whose scores colleges will look at to determine if they are an attractive applicant.
I follow my initial statement with, "I do not mean to devalue any course you are taking, and all your courses are essential. However, the things that you learn in my Weight Training Class will propel you to conquer challenges in any area of life now and for the next 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years of your life. In this class, you will learn how to overcome obstacles, overcome fear and failure, set lofty goals, work together, encourage those around you and, last but not least, embrace the process of becoming the best at getting better. On top of that: this class will help reduce obesity rates in youth and adults and improve your cognitive abilities and mental health."
We are in unprecedented times. Almost every school around the world is trying to figure out how to operate this upcoming year. A school district outside of Boston announced a plan to cut their entire K-12 physical education, music, and arts staff and programs. The Coronavirus pandemic has many schools considering canceling sports, and either eliminating or moving Physical Education and Physical Education elective classes (like Weight Training class) to an online format. Our children's and teacher's health and safety should be our number one priority. But this is also very disturbing as evidence has shown that healthier people fight off and recover from Coronavirus at a much faster and higher rate.
Why Physical Education and Weight Lifting Class are needed now more than ever.
Reason #1: Improved mental health and reduced anxiety
Most of us realize the physical benefits of exercise and a properly designed strength program. Still, the benefits go above and beyond, getting stronger, faster, reducing injuries, adding muscle, or losing fat.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about my job and profession is all of the additional benefits of exercise.
Daily exercise reduces the risks of major depression, stress, and anxiety. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better, so does your mind. Today's youth, including all of Generation Z, is the most anxious generation ever studied. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that Generation Z pollees reported they were nervous or anxious almost twice as much per month as Generation X.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, our youth are under even more risks for increased anxiety and depression. A recent survey of adolescent athletes in Wisconsin showed that 65% of respondents said that they have had anxiety during this pandemic. Reported physical activity was down 50%, and reports of psychosocial health decreased from 90.4 to 76.2, and overall health decreased from 90.9 to 78.4.
Daily exercise combats daily anxiety. A 2017 study found that individuals "that had the highest level of activity had the highest levels of well-being and the lowest levels of depression and anxiety."
The benefits of exercise go well beyond improved athleticism. If schools remove physical activity, physical education, and weight training classes from curriculums, they will put today's youth at a significant disadvantage and additional health risks. Sitting inside all day, in a classroom, is detrimental to depression and anxiety rates. The benefits of being outside, getting sunlight, and vitamin D play a big role in improving mental health. If these classes are taken away or moved online, students' time to be outside will be diminished.
Note: This picture was taken before the Coronavirus pandemic
Reason #2: Improved learning and cognitive abilities.
There is overwhelming evidence confirming that physical activity improves brain function, including a profound positive impact on mental health. Research shows that students perform better in the classes immediately following their strength, conditioning, and fitness classes. Attending weight training class decreases stress and improves students' ability to learn. In a 2007 study, German researchers found that students learn vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise. Participating in physical activity classes during the school day IMPROVES STUDENT test scores.
Studies have also shown that children with high fitness levels have greater brain volume in the hippocampus. The brain region that is associated with memory and the ones with greater brain volume showed signs of enhanced long-term retention.
Another study showed that students memorized new places on a map equally, regardless of their fitness levels. However, when tested on their retention the following day, the student with the higher fitness level performed better.
Physical activity and exercise are important during a child's academic school day. In 2015, a research study randomly assigned 56 school kids to one of three-morning school sessions:
- sitting all morning
- participating in one 20-minute workout after 90 minutes of classroom learning
- participating in two 20-minute physical activity workouts, one before the classroom learning and one after the 90 minute
The study found that the kids who received two workouts in the morning performed better on a test of attention, which was true even after the researchers adjusted for the student's baseline differences in attention.
Finally, what happens when previously inactive students begin a program of daily physical exercise?
A 2007 randomized, controlled study of inactive, overweight students found that 40 minutes a day of exercise improved their executive functioning.. The executive function skill is responsible for paying attention, organizing, planning, prioritizing, starting tasks, staying focused on tasks to completion, understanding different points of view, and regulating emotions. These are some of the essential skills in today's society!
Another experiment replicated these results and found that 13 weeks of exercise is linked with improved math skills and increased activity in the bilateral prefrontal cortex. This brain region is associated with executive function.
In conclusion, overwhelming evidence shows that working out and exercising during the school day will improve a student's cognitive abilities. They are cutting physical education classes, their electives, and after school strength programs will incur an immense amount of harm in the long run and not safeguard our students' futures.
Reason #3: Focus on what you can control.
Strength training encourages students to set big goals and teaches the student they should only focus on what they can control. It is essential in today's uncertain world. The information we have been receiving about the potential health risks of Coronavirus changes daily and sometimes hourly. We need to educate and empower today's youth with the ability to recognize and focus on what they can control. With 24-hour news networks and endless information shared on social media, our students can become overwhelmed and helpless.
In my strength training programs, we operate on the philosophy of span of control. They allow the individual to focus all of their energy on what they can control and not waste it on things that are out of their control. The destination is a continuous byproduct of the work they put in daily.
The span of control during a pandemic like COVID-19 is critical for students. Qualified strength and conditioning coaches are extremely detail-oriented individuals. They meticulously plan every workout or class down to the minute. Sets, reps, and recovery times are thoughtfully designed well in advance. Key safety attention and planning considerations are part of the leadership in a strength program. Coaches can ultra carefully plan for their students to maintain their distance and be as safe as possible. A healthy fitness environment is achieved in a measurably safe way that may be even healthier than the classroom setting's critical challenges. Practicing and monitoring the secure wipe down of equipment and the willingness to protect themselves and others is part of participants' traditional mindset in a fitness setting.
By nature of the training, students surrounded by other disciplined individuals eager to keep each other safe and healthy. These key factors provide an opportunity to create a healthy environment for students beyond the classroom setting.
As a result, instead of focusing on goals that compare them to their competition, our students and high achievers, concentrate on their work ethic, attitude, and how they treat themselves and others. This skill is taught daily in a properly designed high school strength and conditioning program. Taking away these classes rob students of the opportunity to develop this invaluable trait.
Note: This picture was taken before the Coronavirus pandemic
Reason #4: Embrace discomfort and difficult challenges.
This is extremely important during this pandemic. While it is important to focus energy on what we can control, we should also be ready to embrace discomfort, sudden changes, and challenges. The weight room teaches students to overcome fears and persevere to achieve goals. The only way to improve in the weight room is to seek new challenges and put yourself in uncharted territory continually. To reach maximum potential in strength, speed development, or overall fitness level, we must repeatedly fail. Embracing failure is a necessary component of achieving goals, and understanding that the road to success is difficult and full of challenges and discomfort. These are traits that we nurture and develop in weight training programs and classes. If a young student can master this concept, they will be equipped to attack any difficult circumstance they encounter throughout their life.
We are currently in the 4th Industrial Revolution, a time in history that has great promise and danger. New technologies allow us to connect with billions of more people than before, and increased networks enable organizations to improve their efficiency dramatically. However, all the latest technology also means many current occupations and careers will no longer be viable professions as droids, robots, and automation will replace the people currently in these roles.
The 4th Industrial Revolution will create new industries, new careers, and new occupations, but we do not currently know what those jobs will be in the future. Schools are faced with preparing the future generation for jobs that we do not know of yet. The individual who understands how to work in a team setting, continually seeks out new challenges, embraces discomfort, and understands how to overcome failure will be a leader in the 4th Industrial Revolution. In Klaus Schwab's book, The 4th Industrial Revolution, he calls for leaders and citizens to "together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people." The weight room teaches all students all of these concepts and will help propel them into the forefront of this new period.
The Economist Magazine's January 2017 issue shows a graph illustrating that the most successful individuals have always been the ones who have high math and high social skills (that is pretty obvious). However, the second most successful individuals are those with low math, but increased social skills and share are growing. Math skills are essential, but having those skills without social skills is less important. As we continue through this pandemic and into this next era of the 4th Industrial Generation, we must prepare our students with excellent social skills. There is no better place to teach them these skills than a strength program, sports, or physical education!
In conclusion, it is understandable that school administrators must analyze and make changes to operate schools during today's circumstances. However, eliminating or reducing physical education and weight training classes is dangerous. It will do more harm to today's youth than it will in protecting them from this virus. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 67,700 pediatricians, recently released a statement saying: "Lengthy-time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address significant learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. Places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality,"
A properly structured weight training class teaches students to set goals, overcome obstacles, and instill them with the self-confidence to know they can conquer challenges in their lives, now and in the future. It improves mental health, reduces anxiety, improves cognitive abilities, strengthens immune systems, and prepares students to be leaders in their school and community. Now, more than ever, these classes are needed.
About the authors:
Micah Kurtz, MS, CSCS*D, RSCC*D, FMS, USAW, NASE-CSS
Micah Kurtz is the Director of Sports Performance/Assistant AD at Windermere Preparatory School. You can connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @KurtzM3 and visit his website www.TheAthleteMaker.com.
Luke Kurtz is the Vice President of Legal Affairs for US Sugar and passionate about helping students maximize their full potential. He was captain of the University at Albany football team and won two conference titles and played and coached professional football for the Corinthians Football Club in São Paulo, Brazil. Luke is an active writer and has delivered speeches and presentations throughout the United States, Brazil, China, and Hong Kong.