9 Tips for Making Fitness Fun, Educational, and Meaningful

Boy doing a push up

My favorite fitness quote is, “FITNESS? I’m talking about ‘fitness’ whole pizza in my mouth.” If you didn’t just laugh, go back and read; it’s funny. What’s not so funny is how we have traditionally taught fitness in physical education. Primarily as a result of “The Report that Shocked the President,” – a 1955 study based on a 6-party test of muscular strength and flexibility that found U.S. youth were significantly less fit than youth in European countries– we adopted the approach that physical education was going to “get kids fit”. That philosophy had a strong foothold in the field and was rarely questioned in the literature for nearly 40 years.

In 1992, Corbin and Pangrazi suggested that maybe this isn’t the best approach, particularly fitness testing and holding ourselves accountable for the fitness levels of youth. The literature suggests that as a whole, we should teach fitness in physical education, if we implement fitness testing it should be educational and not an accountability tool, and we must consider the long-term impact of our practices on students’ beliefs about physical activity and fitness. Said another way, we need to teach them about fitness, make fitness fun, and provide them with meaningful fitness experiences in physical education, not get them “fit”.

Let me preface the remaining of this blog by saying I don’t think we will ever be able to get kids fit in physical education, but I think fitness should be a part of every physical education lesson. Below are strategies for making this happen and for making fitness fun.

9 Strategies to Make Fitness Fun in PE

Use music: 

It can be a motivator…and it can be a distraction, so be careful. It can also be used as a tool to manage a class during fitness. See below for details.

Aim for quality over quantity:

All too often we instruct students to do “10 sit-ups or 15 squats” without even thinking about it. What if that quantity is too challenging, or too easy? For students, fun is associated with success. One way to foster success is to use timed intervals and focus on the quality of each activity or move. The teacher calls out a fitness activity and students perform the activity for a set amount of time. The best way to manage this is using interval music (ex: 30 seconds of music followed by 30 seconds of silence), or an App like Tabata. This also frees the teacher to move around and provide constructive feedback without having to watch a stopwatch to ensure equal intervals. Typically, intervals are 30-45 seconds for elementary students, and up to 1 minute for middle and high schoolers.

Teach fitness concepts in every lesson:

Once the children have gone through a few minutes of intervals, take a 30-second interval to briefly discuss the fitness concept of the day. This can be a fitness component at the elementary level (flexibility, muscle strength), or at the middle and high school level, a fitness term (overload, interval). You can repeat concepts throughout the year. This allows you to introduce, visit, and revisit the concept for more effective teaching.

Use a variety of fitness activities and routines:

After every 2 lessons, switch to a different fitness activity. This prevents boredom and allows you to spice up the fitness part of the lesson. Some students may not like traditional push-ups, but will do wall push-ups, elevated push-ups, or push-ups on a medicine ball.

Provide lots of specific positive feedback:

“Wow, you are working hard today, Pedro,” or “Y’all are amazing today, I’m seeing some hard workers,” or “Anesia, if you keep your toes pointed forward that will help. Your work today makes me proud.” Avoid questioning effort. Remember, especially in elementary levels, students tend to equate effort and skill. If you tell them you don’t think they are working hard, you are telling them they are not good at it. Kids have bad days too. Sometimes getting down to do a plank for a few seconds, a smile, a wink, and a, “I sure am glad you are here today,” is all it takes…and it’s free for teachers.

Progress from easy to difficult:

Early in the year use activities where you teach a variety of fitness skills. In doing this, I start with the easiest. For example, push-ups are a great activity, but we rarely teach progressions and always wonder why kids can’t perform them. Here is a list of progressions starting with the easiest to help students work toward success.

  • Push-up position. Just being able to hold themselves up is a start.
    • Wave to a friend
    • Wave a foot
    • Wink and smile
    • Wave a foot and a hand
    • Shake hands with a friend
    • Scratch your knee
    • Shake your booty
  • Knee push-ups. Knees below the chest.
    • As it becomes comfortable, move knees backwards to add a challenge
  • Flat tires. Start in push-up position and lower body to ground. Use knees to get back up and repeat.
  • Wall push-ups. Move the feet farther away to increase difficulty.
  • Regular push-up.

Allow student choice:

Once students have a variety of abdominal activities, push-up challenges, flexibility activities, cardiovascular activities, etc., in their bag of tricks, let them choose. Create fitness activities that provide them a chance to show the activities they prefer. The easiest way to do this is to say, “Show me your favorite push-up challenge while the music plays (see #2 above). This allows them to choose the workload and the activity.

Let students create:

At the middle and high school levels, after they have been exposed to a variety of activities and concepts, let the students create their own fitness routines. It serves as a great way for students to “relate” (See PRAISE blog) to a fitness activity, allows them to demonstrate they understand the concepts, and you will probably get an activity idea or two from them.

Build relationships:

Creating interval music allows you to get around and talk to students, help with technique, address issues, and just get to know your kids. If you are strapped to the boom box (if you are younger than 30 ask an old person what that is) because you have to start and stop the music, or are worried about the stopwatch, it’s hard to get to know your students.

Putting these ideas into a fitness activity within a lesson takes just a bit of planning. My next blog will discuss fun activities to teach students about fitness and provide meaningful experience in physical education.

8 Responses

  1. This is really nice. Hope lots of PE teachers will read this one. Ever since I was in grade school, I always love this subject because we also had a great coach! I bet you are too, Aaron. Great work!

  2. I appreciate that you explained the importance of having information about the concept of fitness for better training. My cousin mentioned last night that he was looking for a medical exercise program that would help my uncle recover from a stroke. He asked if I had any idea what would be the best option to consider. Thanks to this informative article, I’ll tell him it will be much better if he consults a trusted post-rehab fitness program as they can help him reach his goals.

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