When many of us recall our high school physical education classes, we think of crowded locker rooms, smelly gym socks, and the dreadful requirement of completing “the mile.” On top of this, most P.E. classes usually met five times a week for no less than forty minutes. The idea was simple: to incorporate a sufficient amount of cardiovascular activity in order to prevent health problems associated with a lack of exercise.
Cornell University, however, has given new meaning to the “physical” aspect of physical education. Unlike high school gym classes, P.E. classes at Cornell do not necessarily correspond to intense physical exertion, but rather to a mental tranquility.
Originally, the physical education requirement was instituted in order to train men for the armed forces during World War II. According to Al Gantert, director of physical education, “P.E. had its roots for men in the military. At the time, it was identified as physical training, a conditioning program for men.” He said that Cornell needed to “prepare soldiers for the war,” in case the men were drafted.
However, after the war, the faculty decided to continue the P.E. requirement. Though training was no longer necessary, the faculty wanted to “make fitness available for all students [in order] to divert them from the stresses of study, to give them a social and emotional outlet,” said Gantert.
According to many physical education teachers, P.E. classes are no longer intended to force students to stay in shape. Instead, they are designed to provide them with a way to de-stress.
According to Priscilla Timberlake, physical education staff member, “P.E. classes give students a chance to go inside themselves and tap into some inner resources.” Timberlake teaches such classes as “Living Routines” and “Moving into the Moment” in which she incorporates brisk walks, stretching and meditation. She stresses the importance of her classes in helping students to search within their own minds and find their “inner serenity.” It is not just about physical exercise; “It’s about mental health as well,” she said.
Timberlake and Gantert agree that students work so hard on their academics that they need some sort of extracurricular activity to escape their demanding work schedules.
Some students enjoy participating in the more mentally focused P.E. classes, claiming to feel calming effects almost instantly. Alyssa Ehrlich ’09 said, “I really enjoyed the personal growth classes. Gym was a good break in the day. It allowed me to relax and not focus on all the work I had to do. During our brisk walks, I was able to socialize with other members of the class and forget about being stressed.”
Those students who participate in a varsity sport or play in the marching band also receive P.E. credit. This represents Cornell’s emphasis on individual well-roundedness through such various extracurricular activities. Through their membership in a team or organization, students are able to receive that social outlet that they need, thereby establishing a camaraderie and alleviating much of their stress.
Cornell offers a broad range of P.E. classes in order to tend to each student’s individual needs. While some students do benefit from heart-pumping classes like cardio-kickboxing and jogging tours, others find they get more out of classes that incorporate meditation and other relaxation exercises.
“I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to determine that P.E. should be exclusively a conditioning program,” said Gantert. “It’s important that the program appeals to a broad spectrum of students with a broad range of ability and needs.”