science of us

If You Hated Gym Class You Probably Hate Exercise Too

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I don’t trust anyone who remembers gym class fondly, and neither should you. What’s fun about your teacher (who should protect you) granting your most popular, most athletic classmates the power to humiliate their less-coordinated, dorkier peers by choosing teams for a made-up middle school sport, like the one where you basically just crash into each other on seated scooters? What could be worse than being forced to submerge oneself in chlorine in the middle of the school day, only to feel cold and smelly and dry-skinned the rest of the day? Where are the so-called Presidential Fitness Award winners now? Are they still doing four or more successive pull-ups, like X-Men or something?

Actually, it might be easier to spot a former gym class–loving freak than you thought — they’re the ones who are still super into exercise, according to a new study published in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. For most people, say the study’s authors, physical activity decreases dramatically from childhood to adulthood. That decline is especially likely if you grew up a gym class hater.

Studies show that two-thirds of American adults rarely, if ever, exercise, and scientists have long believed that one’s attitude toward exercise plays a large role in that lack of interest or desire to work out. They just didn’t know until recently that attitude was shaped so early.

The study’s researchers, based at Iowa State University, surveyed more than a thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 45 on their feelings about gym class, and were surprised by the “vivid and emotionally charged” nature of the responses. Common negative associations reported by participants were embarrassment (mentioned by 34 percent of those who had bad memories of gym class), lack of enjoyment (18 percent), and hating changing clothes in the locker room (14 percent). To all of the above, I say: same.

Researchers found that those survey respondents with the most negative attitudes toward gym class were correspondingly disinclined toward exercise as adults, and were more likely to report they had no intention of exercising in the next few days. While the study’s authors acknowledge that these results may indicate reverse causation in some cases (e.g., an unathletic kid who didn’t like gym class may grow up to be an unathletic, inactive adult because of that lack of athleticism rather than their dislike of gym class), they argue that their findings suggest the formative potential of childhood gym classes on some adult attitudes. The good news (in many senses) is that one’s middle-school experience need not determine the rest of one’s life; even if you hated gym class, it’s always possible to reframe your feelings about exercise to be more positive.

If You Hated Gym Class You Probably Hate Exercise Too