Memories of enjoyment of PE via the modified PACES were the most substantial correlates of present-day attitudes and intentions for PA (see Table 4). In addition, being chosen first infrequently was most strongly related to the amount of time spent sitting on weekdays and on the weekend.
Specifically, Pearson correlations showed that retrospective reports of PE enjoyment as a child were significantly related to current overall attitude (r = 0.37 P < 0.00001), affective attitude (r = 0.40, P < 0.00001), cognitive attitude (r = 0.23, P < 0.00001), intention (r = 0.23, P < 0.00001), and sedentary time on the weekend (r = −0.14, P < 0.00001), but not time sitting on the weekdays (r = −0.08, P = 0.007). In addition, embarrassment in PE as a child was significantly related to current attitudes (r = 0.26, P < 0.00001) and intentions (r = 0.18, P < 0.00001), but not sedentary time on either weekdays (r = −0.10, P = 0.09) or the weekend (r = −0.11, P = 0.01). Being chosen first for teams infrequently was negatively associated with current attitude (r = −0.25, P < 0.00001) and intention (r = −0.21, P < 0.00001) and was positively associated with time spent sitting on the weekends (r = 0.16, P < 0.00001), although not on weekdays (r = 0.10, P = 0.002). In addition, being chosen last for teams often was negatively associated with current attitudes (r = −0.25, P < 0.00001) and intentions (r = −0.14, P < 0.00001), although not time spent sitting on the weekend (r = 0.10, P = 0.002) or during the week (r = 0.14, P = 0.007). Finally, there were no significant differences in present-day memories of PE, attitudes, intention, or embarrassment when the sample was divided (by median split) into those participants below 30 years of age (n = 517) and those older than 30 years (n = 511; P > 0.001).
PE has the potential to foster lifelong enjoyment and motivation for PA. However, the present results indicate that, in many cases, the memories of PE reported by adults are less than ideal, with negative memories spiking during the period of transition to middle school until high school. Within many U.S. school systems, the period proximal to the secondary school transition is marked by an increase in the level of sport-based PA (9), as well as the introduction of fitness testing in PE (21), both of which were reported by some of the respondents in the present survey as their worst memory. The best memories for PE displayed an increase in ninth grade, followed by a decline, whereas the worst memories exhibited an increase around sixth grade, with a peak during middle school and a decrease around tenth grade. Interestingly, these decreases coincide with the age at which many U.S. children are no longer required to participate in PE (22). Therefore, the best-memory peak in ninth grade may represent those who elected to enroll in additional high school PE, presumably because they enjoyed the class. In addition, the data reported here suggest that PE memories from childhood and adolescence have small-to-moderate associations with attitudes, intentions, and time spent being sedentary years later, as an adult.
The worst memories reported in this survey may have important implications because memories for negative experiences, especially those with a strong ego-related emotional component, are typically more salient than memories for positive experiences when engaging in decision making (23). This tendency, known as “negativity bias,” is theorized to be an evolutionary adaptation due to the relatively more severe consequences of failing to avoid dangerous situations (i.e., those associated with displeasure or pain) than failing to approach situations that may entail utility (i.e., those associated with pleasure). Although in modern life humans no longer need to rely on this bias to avoid becoming prey, this adaptational mechanism has remained operational and might explain the strong salience of negative affective and emotional experiences. The responses listed on Tables 2 and 3 illustrate that adults hold remarkably vivid positive and negative memories of PE from their childhood, which may, to some extent, continue to influence their present-day attitudes, intentions, and behavior.
Because negative affective and emotional memories tend to be most salient during decision making, it is concerning that some of the most oft-cited worst memories from PE were embarrassment in front of peers because of lackluster performances during class activities, sport, or fitness tests; evaluations of weight or body composition in front of the class; and, perhaps most unfortunately, criticism being directed at the student by the PE teacher. Worrying that the body is being evaluated by critical observers is the essence of the concept of social physique anxiety, repeated experiences of which are negatively associated with PA in adolescence and adulthood (24). These experiences reportedly occurred most often in the locker room environment, where most secondary school children are expected to “dress out,” a colloquial term for changing into athletic apparel, before and after class. Disturbingly, some PE teachers reportedly brought attention to individual physical appearance by publicly scorning students about the need to lose weight or by assigning extra PA during lessons because, allegedly, some students “needed it.” On the other hand, many of the best memories related to experiencing perceived competence for PA and/or receiving positive recognition from peers or the teacher regarding performances. Ironically, 7% of the best memories included PE being over with or having the opportunity to skip the class. On the other hand, no participant reported canceled PE or skipping PE as being a worst memory.
Recurring instances of children being made to feel embarrassed about their performance could have deleterious consequences for self-efficacy, an important predictor of both adoption and adherence to exercise and PA (25). In particular, these episodes may create negative past performance experiences, the factor regarded as the most powerful determinant of self-efficacy. In addition, these experiences could reduce perceptions of competence and relatedness, two of the basic psychological needs posited in self-determination theory (26). In turn, both competence and relatedness are instrumental for developing autonomous intrinsic motivation for PA, a reliable correlate of PA participation and adherence (27).
Consistent with Cardinal et al. (10), our findings suggest that the perceived frequency at which students are chosen first or last for teams is associated with their PA behavior during adulthood. It is recommended by organizations such as the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE ) that teams be chosen at random. Perhaps attesting to the influence of such recommendations, our results showed a nonsignificant trend toward younger respondents (i.e., those up to 30 years of age) reporting being chosen last for teams less often (M = 3.8 vs 4.1; P = 0.029) and first more often (M = 3.2 vs 2.9; P = 0.013) than older respondents (i.e., those over 30 years). However, we found no differences in PE enjoyment, embarrassment in PE, attitudes, or intentions between age-groups (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 4, Significance tests for outcomes after median-split, http://links.lww.com/TJACSM/A26), suggesting that there is still room for improvements in this regard.
Translating Results to Practice
Given that many participants in the present sample reported vivid and emotionally charged memories of events that had transpired many years, even decades, earlier, we submit that it may be time to crystallize the promotion of pleasure and enjoyment, and the establishment of an implicit association between movement and pleasure, as one of the overarching objectives of PE (29). This suggestion is consistent with recent calls in the field of exercise science for increased attention to the link between PA and pleasure as a potential driver of subsequent behavioral decisions. For example, national scientific organizations and government agencies tasked with issuing evidence-based exercise prescription guidelines and PA recommendations are urged to transition to a “tripartite” rationale, supplementing the traditional emphasis on effectiveness (i.e., maximization of fitness and health gains) and safety with a stronger focus on the promotion of pleasure (30). Because, for many, PE is arguably a major contributor to critical early experiences with PA, it seems reasonable to suggest that the promotion of pleasure through PE should become an integral component of this ongoing paradigmatic shift.
In our survey, many of the worst reported memories involved negative affect experienced during fitness testing, an element of PE that has frequently been a source of controversy among physical educators, pedagogy experts, and exercise psychologists (6,8). Therefore, an interesting question for applied research would be to evaluate the implications of fitness testing, as well as training for fitness testing, for the formation of memories from PE. Theoretically (e.g., 26,27), encouraging self-regulation and self-comparisons, as opposed to externally imposed goals (e.g., keeping up with the recorded pace during the PACER test) or social comparisons to more skilled peers, should help foster more pleasant affective experiences and a higher degree of self-determined motivation. Furthermore, data suggest that children may have difficulty cognitively regulating their affective responses during sustained PA, as well as PA that becomes increasingly more difficult (13), such as during the mile run and the PACER fitness test. Difficulties with controlling negative affect during such activities could be related to the fact that their pattern (i.e., sustained vigorous intensity) deviates from the propensity of children to gravitate toward intermittent PA characterized by only occasional and very brief bursts of vigorous-intensity PA. If these theoretical predictions are supported by empirical evidence, it may be appropriate for physical educators and interventionists to devise activities that more closely mimic the natural movement patterns of children, thereby possibly facilitating more positive affective experiences and a higher level of intrinsic motivation.
Drawing on concepts from cognitive behavioral therapy and sport psychology, strategies such as mindfulness training (31) may be translatable to PE, thereby encouraging children and adolescents to focus attention on their interoceptive responses to PA and instructing them to maintain pleasure by regulating the intensity of their effort. In this approach, students who seem to be decreasing the intensity of their physical effort to maintain pleasure should not be reprimanded, because, as in adults, children and adolescents exhibit large individual differences in the levels of intensity they perceive as “feeling good” and “bad” (32). Recent work (33) has demonstrated that affective responses during PE can be monitored with relative ease, using single-item rating scales, such as the child adaptation of the 11-point bipolar Feeling Scale (34).
Of particular cross-disciplinary interest, the brain regions (i.e., dorsolateral and medial prefrontal cortex) that may be involved in the cognitive regulation of affect during PA and exercise (35) are the same regions theorized to underlie general executive functions, such as inhibiting distracting stimuli or inappropriate behaviors (36). Therefore, encouraging self-monitoring and self-regulation of affect during PA and exercise may have implications for other situations in which these skills are instrumental. For example, in the classroom, improved self-monitoring and self-regulatory skills could help reduce inappropriate classroom behaviors (e.g., interrupting others, not thinking before speaking). In addition, emerging evidence points to the intriguing possibility that the experience of pleasure during PA may be a prerequisite for PA-induced neuroplasticity and learning (37). These novel ideas suggest that cultivating a culture of pleasure-promoting PE could prove to be conducive, rather than detrimental, to disciplined school behavior and academic performance.
Research on methods of enhancing the affective experience of PA and exercise among adults is proliferating but remains relatively limited. Among children, research on this topic is still at a nascent stage and warrants greater attention than it has received thus far. Nonetheless, emerging evidence suggests that some interventions demonstrate promising efficacy, are easily scalable, and could help inform current practice. Specifically, the use of motivational music and video is a widely popular and evidence-supported strategy for increasing pleasure during PA (38).
Among the strongest moderators of PA-associated pleasure and enjoyment in studies of adults is the sense of autonomy (27). Although logistical constraints may preclude offering multiple options for students interested, for example, in sport-oriented activities versus noncompetitive, PA-oriented activities, PE classes structured to accommodate individual preferences should prove advantageous over traditional one-size-fits-all approaches (39). For example, students with high task orientation should be afforded opportunities to experience reaching their individual goals. Likewise, some children may derive the most pleasure and enjoyment from classes in which the focus is on “general” PA behaviors, such as those “foundational movement skills” (40) that have applications for everyday life (e.g., walking, squatting to lift heavy objects while reducing injury risk).
Finally, SHAPE America (41) has advocated that, during primary school, the development of physical literacy, namely, “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, respond effectively and communicate, using the embodied human dimension, within a wide range of situations and contexts,” be among the most important goals of PE. The present results suggest that the focus on physical literacy may require careful consideration, especially after the primary-school level, as it seems that some children may not have developed physical literacy before adolescence. Because the emphasis often shifts to sport and more structured forms of exercise in PE during adolescence, these activities may be experienced as unpleasant by students lacking physical literacy (6–9). Nevertheless, teachers must use caution to avoid situations in which the noble aim of developing physical literacy is implemented in such a fashion as to result in children experiencing embarrassment due to performing “poorly” in front of peers or the instructor, or by grading motor skill competencies. In line with our previous translational recommendations, researchers and educators should not assume that all children derive positive affective experiences through the process of developing their physical literacy. Allowing for custom tailoring of activities to individual student preferences for PA may be necessary and doing so may facilitate more positive affective experiences along with improved physical literacy.
Limitations and Summary
The present study is the largest known survey of adult memories of PE enjoyment and their associations with present-day PA attitudes, intentions, and behavior. Although the results may reiterate long-standing concerns about the implications of PE experiences, the inherent limitations of this survey should be considered. Specifically, this study was limited by its retrospective nature, its cross-sectional and correlational design, and the use of self-report to measure PA. Although retrospective recall is prone to various errors and biases, the high level of detail provided in the open-ended responses (especially among the worst memories) is remarkable and points to the type of memory consolidation typically associated with transformative life events. The vividness and emotionality of the reported worst memories underscores the necessity of fostering pleasure and enjoyment from human movement as a fundamental goal of PE, in accordance with current standards (41).
Although the correlational design of the study precludes inferences about the causal influence of PE experiences on present-day attitudes, intentions, and behavior, the pattern of correlations demonstrated consistency in the predicted directions, warranting follow-up studies, including future experimental interventions. The survey respondents were largely representative of the U.S. population for race, ethnicity, and educational attainment, supporting the generalizability of these results to the U.S. adult population at-large. Although it is possible that recruiting through mTurk may have reduced external validity (e.g., to individuals with Internet access, those willing to participate in surveys for modest monetary compensation), a growing literature has shown that mTurk participants do not differ significantly from research participants who volunteer for laboratory studies (15,16).
The open-ended responses from the present study, in particular, should be concerning to those interested in improving the quality of PE, including individual educators and national organizations (e.g., SHAPE America). Because of the clear dose–response effect of PA frequency on health (42), if improvements in PE experiences could inspire even small increases in PA behavior, millions could derive additional health benefits. However, just as with negative experiences in other domains of development, the long-term consequences of poor experiences during PE may negatively influence the behaviors and, subsequently, the health and longevity of children in the United States and around the world. Although we have offered translational recommendations, implementing these on a large scale will be difficult, as the required changes amount to a substantial paradigmatic shift compared with current practice norms. It seems clear, however, that decades-old arguments concerning the focus on sport in PE programs (7,9) and the pros versus the cons of fitness testing (6,8) should be revisited. With more methodologically rigorous and theory-driven interventions, it may be possible to transform PE into a professional field that closely adheres to the continuously developing evidence-base and one that welcomes psychological best practices for the benefit of children and public health.
No sources of support were used in the preparation of this work. The authors report no conflicts of interests. The results of this study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine.
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