The School Fitness Debate: Carrot, Stick, or Neither?

Fitness Carrot or Stick Debate“Automatic out, Storlie’s up!” my classmates would chant when I’d get up to bat.  As a young girl in the 60s, I was a skinny, klutzy kid no one wanted on their team. Humiliated and defeated, I’d swing my three strikes and, maybe, get walked. I grew up hating PE and sports. As a nutrition major in college, I was devastated when I got a C in Tennis. Later, I decided to knock off my second PE credit by taking a Nutrition & Fitness course (at least I’d ace the nutrition part!). We were challenged to set realistic goals based on our initial fitness levels. I chose running, but couldn’t make it around the track without painful stomach cramps. With training, I slowly I built to 4 miles. This class transformed my life. I found a groove and – more importantly – I learned about overcoming failure. My passion for exercise has carried me through my life and also shaped my career – I obtained a masters of science degree in adult fitness/cardiac rehabilitation. Although I can’t run any more, I enjoy an active lifestyle through cycling, cross-country and downhill skiing, walking, and gardening.

The PE course that turned my humiliating experiences with sports into a lifelong passion for physical activity was based on a few key principles:

  • Individualized choice of activities
  • Program tailored to initial fitness level and personal goals
  • Foundational skills taught through demonstration and coaching
  • Monitoring, feedback, and accountability for goal achievement
  • Grading based on goal achievement, not innate skill

Reading news this week about highly debated legislation regarding fitness in schools, new authoritative guidance about exercise for Americans, and America’s Fittest City report, I reflected on the lessons I learned over 30 years ago. Let’s delve into these fitness reports and policy activities:

  • The IOM report, “Educating the Student Body:  Taking Physical Activity to School,” released on May 23, 2013, concluded that schools are the best place for kids to be physically active since they spend so much time there. School officials are concerned about how to fund these recommendations and what else in the school day will become short-changed. Specific recommendations are that:
    • Elementary school children should get 30 min/day or 150 min/week in PE.
    • Middle and high school kids should get 45 min/day or 225 min/week in PE.
  • The Maine Senate approved a bill, requiring public schools to provide at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day for elementary school students. The most controversial clause allows schools to withdraw recess for disciplinary purposes, but requires that they substitute the lost physical activity. The Maine School Board Association opposed the mandatory aspects of the new legislation.
  • The Minneapolis-St. Paul area was named “America’s Fittest City” for the third year in a row by the American College of Sports Medicine. Their report, American Fitness Index, released on May 29, 2013, showed that top-tier fitness cities have an infrastructure that supports physical activity and the citizens value their city parks. Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, spends about $227 per person, per year on its city parks. Oklahoma City, the lowest ranking city — by contrast — spends far less (about $60 per person, per year). Minneapolis-St. Paul’s strong performance on both health behaviors and outcomes might suggest that the community’s investment in fitness infrastructure enables healthy lifestyles, which in turn has a positive impact on public health.

The public debate about PE in schools stirs up controversy among educators, regulators, and fitness/health experts about how to execute school-based programs to help our youth become more fit and active. I applaud the spirit of these emerging policies, but from my personal experience, it takes more than mandated minutes of physical activity — legislative sticks — to create a motivating experience with PE. I hope the programs that result from the recommendations and legislation include some of the sound fitness principles that inspired my lifetime of activity. But we also need to think about fitness from a “holistic lifestyle” perspective. Schools cannot be expected to carry all the water. Family fitness, active playtime, and community fitness infrastructures are needed to support active lifestyles for American children.

Living in the Minneapolis area, I enjoy access to a regional bike trail system where I can hop on a bike in my backyard and ride 20+ miles without having to cross a road. My regional trails are loosely connected to a metro-wide trail system, enabling a plethora of biking options. In the winter, I buy a $50 ski pass to access extensive cross-country ski trails in a network of county parks — some of them are even lit for night-time skiing. Designed and managed for multi-use, you’ll see Minnesota trails used for walking, hiking, roller blading, and dog sledding. In the summer, the city lakes offer public beaches and boating access for swimming, paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, and other water sports. Living in this environment has enabled my active lifestyle and for that I am grateful to the Minneapolis-St. Paul’s founding fathers for their early vision and current officials for continuing to support it.

So should our school fitness policies use a carrot or a stick? I suggest that neither are truly effective. The real goal is to provide a positive experience for all kids — not just the athletically talented ones — and a supportive environment so that fitness is accessible and becomes intrinsically rewarding.



  1. Gabe on June 13, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    I think you hit on a good point about providing an environment for students to set their own fitness goals. Let PE programs be driven by students’ needs and interests rather than legal requirements. So you’re right, it’s not about the carrot or the stick, it’s about who controls the experience.

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