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If Gym Class Traumatized You as a Kid, You Can Still Heal Your Relationship with Fitness

Physical Education classes often fail to teach students about health, wellness, and exercise. For some kids, it's a horrific experience. As an adult, however, you can reclaim your relationship to exercise. Here's how.

Hated Gym Class?
Blake Reichenbach

Blake Reichenbach

He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

I still remember the first time a classmate laughed at me for doing "girl pushups" in middle school. 

Unlike the other boys in my grade, I hadn't yet hit puberty. I still had the strength of a child, but the chubby body of a boy getting ready to grow. On top of that, I had flat feet, which made running awkward and noisy. 

On the days which my peers and I had gym class, I'd spend my mornings nauseous, dreading the time at which I'd have to feign disinterest for fear of being singled out as incapable. Even though I led the class in grades and was often the reason curved grading didn't work, in gym class, I was at the back of the pack. 

Literally. 

There was one (awful) exercise we did where we would jog in a single file line. One by one, the person at the back of the line would have to run past the rest of the line and take their place at the front, setting the pace for everyone else. The gym teacher would huff and roll his eyes when it was my turn to move from the back of the line to the front, gruffly commanding the class to slow down so that I could make it to the front. 

Hating Gym Class Isn't Uncommon

As I've gotten older, I've realized that my perception of physical education isn't out of the ordinary. Across TikTok and Twitter, I've seen countless others talk about their own experiences in gym class. From being mocked in the locker room to the dreaded, cliche one-mile run, it seems that one thing that unites a large portion of the population is a negative perception of physical education. 

Some kids loved it, to be clear. Especially in middle school and high school, where some students have started finding their adult bodies and others still linger in childhood physicality, there's a wide range of ability, comfort, and confidence. 

It's to be expected that when two agemates are pitted against each other– one already shaving and looking the teacher in the eye while the other is still waiting for that first armpit hair– for one party to have an easier time than the other. 

Those of us with bodily differences and body types that don't tend to lend themselves to organized sports struggled to make peace with this rite of passage. 

PE Didn't Teach Me Physical Education. It Taught Me Sports... Kind of.

Looking back on my experiences with PE, or gym class, one thing that stands out to me is that I didn't really learn anything about my body or physical health and wellness in those classes. 

What I did learn, however, could be condensed into a few bullet points:

  1. The heart pumps blood through your body. 
  2. Vegetables are good for you. 
  3. The rules of basketball and soccer.
  4. How to change discreetly in the locker room without drawing any attention to myself. 

Along the way, we also line danced, played dodgeball, and occasionally had to do sit-ups. 

By the time I left high school, I had a virtually non-existent relationship with fitness and wellness. I had a membership to a local gym, and I would go a few days each week, but I had no clue what I was doing. I'd use the same three or four machines over and over again and then leave after half an hour of doing very little. 

My relationship with fitness could be condensed down to the fact that I was insecure and struggling with body dysmorphia, so I thought that I had to exercise in an attempt to get slimmer. 

Thanks to the quality of physical education I had received, I didn't know that I was actually underweight, how to work out, how to eat properly to fuel my workouts, or that I was still going through puberty and just happened to be a late bloomer who wouldn't find his adult body until his early twenties. 

When I got to college, I referred to myself as someone who was not athletic in any way, shape, or form because I had learned that athleticism was the degree to which one would excel in gym class activities. By believing this narrative about myself, I saw myself as a fitness outsider. 

Repairing Your Relationship With Fitness

If you were a gym-hating kid in middle school and high school, you can still reclaim a healthy relationship with fitness as an adult. 

You're never too old, too out of shape, or too "unathletic" to benefit from fitness. It's just going to require a lot of reframing and unlearning. 

What I've realized in retrospect is that PE classes' biggest flaw was their inflexibility and failure to convey actual health and wellness principles. They didn't make room for learning to scaffold progress, adapt exercises for limitations or disabilities, or demonstrate the value of physical activity beyond vanity and bragging rights. 

In gym class, being fit is all about being the star pupil and having the ability to dominate your peers in whatever competition the teacher orchestrated that day. 

In real life, being physically active is about:

  • Preventing injury and illness. 
  • Slowing the progress of age-related bone density loss.  
  • Improving sleep quality. 
  • Managing chronic pain.
  • Managing stress, anxiety, and mood disorders (please note that exercise generally cannot replace medications for these issues– never stop taking a medication until speaking with your doctor). 
  • Reducing your risk of heart disease. 
  • Strengthening your relationship with your own body. 

And so much more. 

In order to make the necessary shift in mindset to reclaim your relationship with fitness, there are a few key principles that I recommend. 

Reflect On Your Current View of Fitness

We have to start where we are. Rarely do we ever question our assumptions or gut reactions. In cases like this, however, questioning those impulses is important. 

What comes to mind when you think of exercise? Of fitness? Of wellness? 

What do these terms evoke, and does that serve you in a beneficial way? 

The reason it's important to start here is that if you never question your assumptions, you can subconsciously sabotage yourself without ever realizing what you're doing. If you associate fitness and exercise with embarrassment and discomfort, for example, you may mistakenly believe that everyone is watching you and judging you when you step into the gym, making it unlikely that you'll stick with a workout routine. 

Questioning your assumptions and impulses gives you logic to work with, and logic is powerful for counteracting the pull of emotion. 

Unlearn What You Were Taught In Gym Class

As a second step, you're probably going to have to do a bit of unlearning so that you can learn correctly. 

Gym classes often take a one-size-fits-all approach to physical education. That's why everybody did the same warm-up exercises, the same activities, and the same cooldowns. 

Fitness is not monolithic. We all have different ranges of ability, safe movements, and goals. As a result, what works for us will vary wildly. 

Do a bit of research into the types of workouts that may work best for you. Do you want an intense workout that makes you sweat and have your heart pounding? Do you want to be able to run in a 5k with your friends next summer? Has your doctor advised increasing your activity level because of heart disease-related risk factors? 

Depending upon where you're starting, your physician or a certified personal trainer can probably point you in the right direction. If you do work with a trainer, make sure it's someone with credentials– folks shilling MLM (multi-level marketing, sometimes called network marketing) products and programs aren't going to be able to coach and consult as well as a certified trainer. I promise the beefy guys and gals at the gym in tank tops are nicer than they look!

Experiment with a Variety of Types of Exercise to Find What You Can Do Consistently

One of the worst things you can do to rehabilitate your relationship with fitness is take an "embrace the suck" mindset to the extreme. 

For some reason, many of us think we can force ourselves into liking exercise. Like some weird form of exposure therapy, we show up at the gym and angrily stomp through whichever routine we've decided we need to be doing. We hate every second of it and just assume that one day we'll magically cross a threshold where it becomes fun or, at the very least, not miserable. 

That can happen, but it's rare. 

Instead, a much healthier approach is to be willing to try out a variety of forms of exercise. Weight lifting may be enjoyable for some, but cardio may be more fun for others. Some folks do well working out on their own, and others need the structure of a class or other form of group fitness. There may be trainers and studios that are able to provide effective coaching for folks who have adaptive workout needs, and others who may be inexperienced in that area. 

There is no right or wrong way to exercise. What's important is that you get moving and do so consistently. Consistent heart rate elevation and muscle activation is necessary for you to reap the benefits. That's why it's important to find something you enjoy– if you despise exercise, it's going to be significantly harder to make it a consistent activity. 

Create Clear and Sustainable Goals for Yourself

Having a game plan before starting a workout routine is important. A plan will help you ensure that you're making consistent progress. 

For folks who are brand new to exercising regularly, I recommend crafting goals for yourself around consistency. There's a lot of content on the internet about losing weight or building muscle, and many people start with either (or both) of those things as goals. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with either. But, if you already have a fraught relationship with exercise, the slow and gradual nature of both of those goals could leave you feeling disheartened or defeated. Worse, if you feel like you're not making progress, you may start to feel like you're– once again– the kid struggling to keep up in gym class. 

By focusing on consistency over weight loss or muscle development, you can create a plan that lets you build a baseline foundation that establishes exercise as a habit. Other goals can then be built on that foundation down the road. 

Goals may look like: I will exercise for 30 minutes, 4 times per week.  

Even better, consider a goal that specifies when, how, and addresses "what ifs." For example: I will stop at the gym on my way home from work on Monday through Thursday, and exercise for at least thirty minutes. If something unavoidable comes up and I can't go to the gym one day, I'll just pick up where I left off the next day and use Saturday as a make up day.

Let the Past Be the Past

Some folks reading this may think it sounds silly to let your relationship with fitness as an adult suffer because of negative experiences you had as a kid. 

Those of us who lived in a state of constant fear when it came to PE, however, know what it's like for all varieties of sport and fitness to have left a bad taste in your mouth. 

The good news is that the negativity you currently associate with exercise can be replaced with something positive and productive– I'll cite my own experiences as one such example of this happening. 

While my gym class anxiety used to be so bad that I'd get sick, now the inverse is true. When I'm anxious and struggling to focus, is heading to the gym and breaking a sweat that calms me down. 

Regardless of how kids in class made you feel or the misconceptions you've internalized from a careless teacher, consider this article your diploma– you're graduating from PE class and never have to return! What you do with your relationship to fitness is now entirely up to you. 

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