PE Blog
Education Related Jobs
PE Degree
Physical Education Background
What is PE
Why Important
Exercises & Sports Coaching Exercises
Exercise Machines
Outdoor Games
Health & Nutrition health education
Nutrition Books
Background Information About Us
Contact Us
Teaching Resources

[?] Subscribe To This Site

Add to Google
Add to My Yahoo!
Add to My MSN
Subscribe with Bloglines

The History of Physical Education

The beginnings

The history of physical education goes back to ancient times, if we think of it in the simple terms of fitness. As with all body of knowledge what we have learned, valued, and taught has evolved over time. The same is true for our notion of physical education.

Today, we actually think of physical education more in terms of health and physical education. Indeed, probably most schools in America today even separate health and physical education classes. As we move forward in the realm of physical education we should look at the history of physical education as well as look at what we currently know, so a well-developed education covering health, fitness, and athletics can be implemented.

The history of physical education verifies that in many of the ancient cultures sports, and fitness, were a way of life. Sports were often a way for young men to develop the skills and strength necessary to be a warrior. For most people life was physical and difficult but for the wealthy sedentary life began as agriculture became more technically advanced and sophisticated.

Young women were generally not involved in these sports because the sports were associated with military training. The ancient Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans all had fitness training regimens and young men expected to serve in the military. The education was essentially around those skills.

Physical Education was very much centered on these “warrior” sports and activities or simply was developed as part of the work involved in life. The knowledge and understanding of health was primitive and thus the education regarding that aspect was virtually non-existent.

The history of physical education for centuries was about athletics and physical activity. Health education was very often closely linked to the spiritual practices of the culture and the spiritual laws that were passed down. For example, the ancient Jews had laws and customs around food and leprosy. The Ayurvedic traditions of India also had important health teachings that were tied into their spiritual beliefs and practices.

The history of physical education did not change a great deal for centuries. For most of you reading this you can probably remember taking phys ed. in junior high school (later middle school) or high school. You may even have had it in elementary school. The history of physical education as we remember it is a relatively modern phenomena and can be traced back to our European roots.

Changes in Europe

Continental Europe underwent significant cultural changes following the Renaissance. Physical education programs expanded within most of the emerging nations of Europe. The first modern physical education movement, which was centered on physical fitness, came in the form of gymnastics programs becoming especially prevalent in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Great Britain.

The growth of gymnastics in Germany can be primarily attributed to the work of two physical educators: Johann Guts Muths and Friedrich Jahn. Muths invented numerous exercise programs and the equipment upon which they were performed.

Friedrich Jahn earned the title of "Father of German Gymnastics" for his long-lived work. It was early during Jahn's lifetime that Napoleon conquered much of Europe, including Germany. With its downfall to France, Germany was subsequently divided into separate states. Jahn's passion for German nationalism and independence became the driving force behind his creation of gymnastic programs. Shortly thereafter, exercise facilities that housed apparatuses designed for running, jumping, balancing, climbing, and vaulting called Turnvereins developed throughout Germany.

Per Henrik Ling developed and introduced his own gymnastics program to Sweden, which consisted of three different areas:

1) educational gymnastics,
2) military gymnastics,and
3) medical gymnastics.

Ling understood that exercise was necessary for everyone. He believed that exercise programs should be created based on the needs and uniqueness of the individual. Ling also thought physical educators must possess knowledge of the effects of exercise on the human body. Ling used science and physiology to better understand the importance of fitness.

Frank Nachtegall played an important role in the history of physical education by introducing and helping to popularize gymnastic programs throughout Denmark. He was especially concerned with development of gymnastic programs in schools. He taught in a private facility, which was devoted entirely to physical training. He eventually became director of a school called Training Teachers of Gymnastics.

Americans deep cultural connection with Great Britain explains why the history of physical education in America was influenced by Great Britain. Within Great Britain, Archibald Maclaren promoted the importance of fitness and regular exercise. Maclaren was also fascinated with the scientific components of fitness. Maclaren made several observations based on his research.

Maclaren believed the cure for weariness and stress was physical action.

Secondly, he noted recreational exercise found in games and sport was not sufficient for attaining adequate fitness levels.

Finally, Maclaren realized both growing boys and girls required regular physical exercise.

Maclaren, like Ling, recognized the need for individualizing fitness training programs. Another significant contribution was that he documented the importance of progression of exercise.

As you look at the history of physical education in Europe from the 18th and 19th centuries and you can see its impact on American schools. As Europeans moved to the United states they brought with them aspects of their culture, including views on education. Within Europe, schools had been an important institution used for spreading the idea of the importance of physical education to society. Physical education was woven into their educational systems.

Developments in America

In the United States, the early educational process focused primarily on intellectual matters. Schools concentrated on teaching traditional subjects including reading, writing, arithmetic, and religious matters. Most American schools were founded with deeply religious (Christian) foundations.

Physical education remained missing from the public education system for the better part of the nineteenth century. Despite the relative lack of interest in physical fitness during this time period, J.C. Warren and Catherine Beecher made significant contributions to the future of physical education in America.

The history of physical education must recognize the works of Dr. J.C. Warren, a medical professor at Harvard University, who was a major proponent of physical activity. Warren’s medical background provided him with ample evidence for necessity for regular exercise. Catherine Beecher was another significant contributor to the history of physical education in America. She devised fitness programs to meet the needs of women. Among her many different programs was a system of calisthenics performed to music.

An interesting argument developed during the post-Civil War period that still exists today. Many physical education instructors believed firmly in the value of incorporating exercise programs that would improve health-related fitness. However, sports were also gaining popularity in the United States during this era. Consequently, for much of the history of physical education in America the majority of physical education programs focused on sports and games. The debate between health-related fitness and athletic skill-related physical education programs continues to exist.

The Industrial Revolution to 1950s

One of the most important events in the history of physical education in the United States was the Industrial Revolution. Advancement in industrial and mechanical technologies replaced labor-intensive jobs. Americans began moving into and building cities. The new city life generally required less movement and work compared to rural life, consequently decreasing levels of physical activity.

At the turn of the 20th century, the most common causes of death were from influenza, polio, rubella, and other infectious diseases. Risk of disease and mortality from infectious diseases were alleviated with the discovery of Penicillin. The cost of industrialization and urbanization became glaringly apparent in the mid 20th century.

Diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type II diabetes, never before prevalent, began to be recognized as the leading causes of disease and death. The lifestyle improvements brought in part by the Industrial Revolution had apparently come with an unwanted and alarming cost to health.

Our history of physical education continued to emphasize athletics and fitness over general health. It would be decades before health education began to play a more prominent role within physical education curriculum.

After the World War I was fought and won, the government released statistics from the draft that showed one out of every three drafted individuals was unfit for combat and many of those drafted were highly unfit prior to military training.

The Government passed legislation that ordered the improvement of physical education programs within the public schools. The gains that physical education programs made through the passage of legislation following WW I were short-lived. Funding for these programs became limited and eventually was exhausted as emphasis in the poor economy during the great depression was forced to shift elsewhere, a significant fact that influence the history of physical education in the United States.

The United States entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With the war came the need to draft military personnel. During the draft it became clear that many of the draftees were not fit for combat. When the war was over, it was reported that nearly half of all draftees needed to be rejected or were given non-combat positions. These disturbing statistics helped gain the attention of the country with regards to the importance of fitness and played an important role in the history of physical education.

Important contributions in the history of physical fitness came during the 1940s, especially from Dr. Thomas K. Cureton at the University of Illinois. Cureton introduced the application of research to fitness, which improved individual workout recommendations. He not only recognized the numerous benefits of regular exercise, he strove to expand the body of knowledge regarding physical fitness. He sought to answer questions such as how much exercise was healthy and what types of exercise were most effective.

Dr. Cureton also set about to discover how physical fitness could best be measured within an individual. Among his most important contributions to the history of physical education were developing fitness tests for cardio respiratory endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility. His research resulted in multiple recommendations for the improvement of cardio respiratory fitness, including creating exercise intensity guidelines necessary for improved fitness levels. His suggestions became the fundamental basis behind future exercise programs.

2nd Half of the 20th Century

No history of physical education in the United States would be complete without writing about Jack LaLanne. LaLanne began his lifetime career as a fitness instructor. Throughout his life, LaLanne preached the value of healthy lifestyles. The history of physical education took a new direction under LaLanne when in the 1950s, The Jack LaLanne Show began airing on television. The modern fitness programs on television owe their existence to the ground breaking work of LaLanne.

LaLanne developed fitness programs including aerobics, water aerobics, and resistance exercise. He developed numerous pieces of exercise equipment including the first cable-pulley machine, the safety system for doing squats called the Smith machine, and the first leg extension machine. Though LaLanne preceded the modern fitness movement by some three decades, his fitness ideology and exercise programs were correct in approach when judged by modern research.

During the 1950s, numerous organizations took initiative in educating the general public about the consequences of low fitness levels. Several agencies that have been involved in fitness promotion since the mid-1950s include the American Health Association (AHA), the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Association for Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAPHERD), and the President's Council on Youth Fitness.

These organizations would provide merit and legitimacy to the coming fitness movement, which is an important chapter in the history of physical education in America. One other organization, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), was formed in 1954, and has proved to be one of the premier organizations in the promotion of health and fitness.

President John F. Kennedy was a major proponent of physical education. Kennedy spoke openly about the need for American citizens to improve their fitness levels, including writing an article in Sports Illustrated entitled "The Soft American." He said, "We are under-exercised as a nation; we look instead of play; we ride instead of walk". Kennedy pushed the federal government to become more involved in national fitness promotion and started youth pilot fitness programs. Kennedy's commitment to fitness can best be summarized when he said, "Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence."

It has only been over the past few decades within the over-all history of physical education that has seen a shift in focus to over-all well-being. The health curriculum standards in this country’s largest state, California, exemplifies where health and physical education are today in our public schools.

California standards for high school students are broken up into six areas:

1) nutrition and physical activity

2) growth, development, and sexual health

3) injury prevention and safety,

4) alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs,

5) mental, emotional, and social health,

6) personal and community health.

Each of those content areas has eight overarching standards that the curriculum falls under. Those standards are:

1) essential health concepts,

2) analyzing health influences,

3) accessing valid health information,

4) interpersonal communication,

5) decision making,

6) goal setting,

7) practicing health-enhancing behaviors, and

8) health promotion.

All of that information can be found at this address.

Today's Challenge

One of the great problems in pubic education today is the curriculum. These California health standards are not unusual. They look great on the surface, but they try to cover too much information and don’t do justice to any area.

If students were really taught how to analyze information to determine truths and did that in the context of just nutrition education, they would be much better served and come away with a much deeper understanding of how nutrition impacts our health. The same can be said for physical education and emotional health. Those three areas are all that need to be covered if done well.

Those who only see peoples "needs" and believe if they don’t fill every "need" people will suffer too often control public schools. It is a misguided assumption to believe school curriculum needs to solve every societal problem. That belief has led to what we call propaganda curriculum, curriculum that is created by government agencies or large universities with their own agendas and then distributed by public schools.

There are many excellent public school teachers, but students are far too often not required to analyze the information within the mass produced curriculum or compare it with other sources. The government or universities produce it, the teacher accepts as truth, so it is the truth. That is dangerous and wrong. To change it we begin by educating ourselves and then teaching others.

We the people, each individual, must exercise our individual liberties to learn and teach others. We must not abdicate that responsibility to any group, especially government agencies. We must be able to discern truth from false hood and be willing to investigate truth claims.

We will do some of that for you when we recommend products, but nothing will replace you doing the reading and then trying the products, programs, or approaches recommended for yourself. You can then give us feedback.

Lance C. Dalleck, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

back to the top


Join our institute and get a free report as well as be entered in our quarterly drawing from one of our free nutritional and exercise products!

Enter your E-mail Address

Enter your First Name (optional)


Don't worry -- your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Success Institutes Journal.