When it comes to physical education in our country’s schools, parents, teachers, and administrators alike typically place it at the bottom of their list of priorities — something to fit in if budget, time, and academic standards allow. My guest, however, says that P.E. should be thought of as the most important component in education, and as critical not only in ensuring the lifetime health of our kids, but even attaining those vaunted academic standards too.
His name is Dr. Daniel O’Neill and he’s an orthopedic surgeon, a sports psychologist, and the author of Survival of the Fit. Today on the show, Dr. Dan lays out how a lack of physical activity is creating problems in kids from obesity to anxiety, and preventing the development of what he calls a “physical identity.” He explains the way the huge number of kids who don’t see themselves as athletes end up not pursuing physical activity at all, and why he thinks school-sponsored sports are only contributing to this problem. Dan takes us back to a time in our history when physical education was prioritized, and we discuss what’s wrong with modern P.E. and how it can be improved. Dan makes an argument for why P.E. should be the main, foundational thing focused on in schools today, and what people can do to push to make that happen.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #749: Let the Children Play!
- Trailer for The Motivation Factor with footage of what the La Sierra P.E. program was like
- The Motivation Factor documentary
- AoM Podcast #183 on the La Sierra P.E. program
- JFK on Americans getting soft and the need for a more physically fit nation
- Natural Movement (MovNat)
- AoM Podcast with Erwan LeCorre, founder of MovNat
- Tedx talk on the Naperville, IL physical education program
- AoM Podcast #599 on “physical intelligence”
- AoM Article: How to Instill a Love of Fitness in Your Kids
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When it comes to physical education in our country schools, parents, teachers and administrators alike typically place it at the bottom of their list of priorities, something to fit in if budget, time and academic standards allow. My guest however, thinks that PE should be thought of as the most important component in education, and is critical not only in ensuring the lifetime health of our kids, but even attaining those wanted academic standards too. His name is Dr. Daniel O’Neill, and he’s an orthopedic surgeon, a sports psychologist, and the author of Survival of the Fit.
Today on the show, Dr. Dan lays out how lack of physical activity is creating problems in kids from obesity to anxiety and preventing the development of what he calls a physical identity. He explains the way the huge number of our kids who don’t see themselves as athletes end up not pursuing physical activity at all and why he thinks school-sponsored sports are only contributing to this problem. Dr. Dan takes us back to a time in our history when physical education was prioritized, and we discuss what’s wrong with modern PE and how it can be improved. Dan makes an argument for why PE should be the main foundational thing focused on in schools today and what people can do to push to make that happen. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/pe.
Alright, Dr. Daniel O’Neill, welcome to the show.
Daniel O’Neill: Thank you so much, Brett. My pleasure.
Brett McKay: So, you are an orthopedic surgeon, but you become this… A big advocate for rebranding and revamping the way American kids experience physical education in schools, how did you get involved in with reforming PE?
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, that’s a good question, because my day job was an orthopedic surgeon, and after about 10 or so years, I thought I was missing a big component, I was working with some pretty high level athletes in those days. And I went back to school and got a degree in exercise and sports psychology, and that was at the school of education at Boston University on my program. So I wound up taking a lot of education courses over those years, and what the real thing was, and this is not news to anybody, is that in my 40 years of medicine I have seen kids get fatter and sadder and more out of shape and more unable to play and more unable to move and it’s just been visual, it’s not even you have to do a study and break down the data, you can just see it anywhere, any time. And I thought we needed to do something about it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think everyone’s seen that, and I guess everyone’s heard about that there’s been an increase in the number of children these days with what we call the diseases of civilization, things like diabetes, it’s stuff that you wouldn’t get… You’re not supposed to get until maybe you’re 40s or 50s, you’re seeing kids as young as 10 get it.
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. And what I talk about and the analogy I make is that when I was a kid, we were stealing our parent’s cigarettes, and they were afraid if we got addicted to those cigarettes we would become emphysemic and have lung cancer and such when we’re in our 60s and 70s. These children, our children today are sick now, they’re not waiting until they’re adults to get diseases, like you say, they have diabetes and high blood pressure and anxiety and depression, all these western diseases, diseases of civilization, but really adult diseases, you know, and they shouldn’t be having them as children.
Brett McKay: Well, nutrition plays a role in that. You write a bit about that, but your focus is on the physical activity component. Do we know what the state of childhood physical activity in America is today?
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, it’s zero. It’s the limit of X approaches zero. You’re absolutely right. In the book, I didn’t wanna go down the diet road too much, just because there’s so much written on that and there’s so much, not controversy, but just so much that we know and that we know is not happening. And there are a lot of really smart people that are working on that. But what I feel like hasn’t been addressed is that physical activity component, and the kids today are just not doing anything, they’re not moving, they’re not playing… The ones that do organized sports quit by the age of 15, and they’re getting those diseases that you mentioned. So, unless we do something when they’re young, when they still have what I call a physical identity, we’re going to have another generation that has a shorter lifespan than the last generation.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I wanna talk more about this physical identity idea in a bit ’cause I thought it was really powerful, but do we have any comparisons to say how much physical activity kids got say a generation or two ago compared to today?
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, it’s interesting, it hasn’t really been quantified, but kids just went out and played, and playgrounds and ball yards and these things just had kids all over them, but we don’t know the real breakdown of activity versus the ultra-processed foods that we’re dealing with versus the genetic components, because it’s to the point now where there is a genetic component to some of their obesity because the parents are giving these kids a bad start in life in utero because of the foods they’re consuming, the mothers are consuming, so it really is complicated. But I don’t know of a study that has literally looked at an activity when I was a kid 50 years ago versus today.
Brett McKay: We have numbers… You talk about in the book, we have some rough idea on the amount of time kids are spending on screens, and that’s just been increasing, I think I’ve seen numbers up to seven hours a day on screens, which is crazy, because if you have your six hours at school, and you’re asleep for eight hours, the rest the time you’re just on a screen.
Daniel O’Neill: It’s absolutely amazing. And like you say… Whatever number you mentioned, it’s probably bigger now, it’s getting bigger by the day, just like obesity… Just like obesity is getting bigger by the day, and I use the word very specifically addicted, these children are addicted to the two-dimensional entertainment, they’re addicted to their screens, they are addicted to Call of Duty, they’re addicted to their iPhones, are addicted to Snapchat, they are addicted just like they’re addicted to the ultra-processed foods and just like people are addicted to cigarettes, it’s a very similar physiologic response for sure.
Brett McKay: So we’ve mentioned the lack of movement has resulted in an increase in obesity, metabolic conditions like diabetes, but I also like how you emphasize the lack of physical activity can also help explain partly why we’ve seen an increase in childhood anxiety and depression in the past two decades.
Daniel O’Neill: Oh, absolutely. And we have all the data on this. That’s the thing that… There’s no secrets here. I was talking about setting up a study and I was talking to a public health guy from Columbia, and I’m on the phone with him, and I almost felt him reach through the phone and grab my neck and scream “We don’t need anymore studies. We have the studies.” This is not a tobacco issue where the tobacco companies were able to obfuscate a lot of the data and such, there’s no question with what is going on now, we see it time after time, study after study. You cannot open the paper, essentially, if you open the USA Today today, it says, if you had done this one study group of 6000 or something people, I forget, if they had done 10 minutes of exercise more it would have increased their lifespan by this much. It’s just remarkable how little exercise we need to make these health changes, but in the case of kids, they need a lot of exercise because they’re kids.
Brett McKay: And what’s crazy is that movement can do all sorts of things to help with obesity, insulin resistance, anxiety, depression, it’s free, you just have to go outside and do it, but our typical solution is a medical one. It’s like, well, give the kid a drug for his anxiety, put them on high blood pressure medication or some sort of medication for his diabetes, and it’s like, “Wait a minute, we got this thing that’s free. Why aren’t we using that?”
Daniel O’Neill: Brett, if I knew. I was down… A week ago, I was down at our legislature testifying in front of the education committee, talking about just this. They have a bill before them, they’re taking a hospital down in the southeast part of the state, and they’re making it a full pediatric psychiatric hospital, and that’s to the tune of millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars, rather than sitting there and saying, “Hold it, why do we have all these kids with anxiety and depression and all these other problems? Why don’t we do something about that?” And as you point out, oh yeah, we have this thing called mother nature, and she could help us with this, and if we just gave these children physical education every day for every child, it is gonna solve so many issues. And just to pick up on your point, we have our big brains to run these fancy bodies that we have, in other words, it’s not the mind-body connection. It’s the body-mind connection. The body is what drives this, if your body is not working, your brain is not gonna be working.
Brett McKay: So, one of your more, I think really powerful and strong arguments you make in the book is that by kids moving less in childhood, it’s causing them to not develop what you call a physical identity. What do you mean by physical identity and what happens when a kid doesn’t develop a physical identity in childhood?
Daniel O’Neill: Right, so for anybody that has had a kid or a puppy dog or an octopus or a bear cub or has seen any youth, any young animal moving, they understand that they have a physical identity, you come out of the womb, you come out of the egg with a physical identity, you are born to move, you are born to explore, you are born to go out in the snow and roll around and make snow angels. That’s what children do. What we have to do is allow them to keep doing that. In other words, if we let children continue to play and help them play with facilities and bike pass and this sort of thing. They are gonna keep doing that ’cause that’s what they know how to do. That’s their physical identity.
So everyone, every child has a physical identity, there’s no two-year-old who walks slowly through the airport, every two-year-old is jumping and skipping and running, that’s what they do. If we allow them to keep that, things are going to be just fine. And if we allow them to have physical education every day, they’re going to keep playing, and with a little bit of instruction, they can learn some body movement skills, they can learn how to squat, they can learn how to swing a racket, this kind of stuff, but the most important thing is to let them play. And believe it or not, the kids are making that distinction around the age of seven, so in other words, if we don’t let them keep their physical identity after the age of seven, that’s when the kids start heading to the couch and bad things happen there.
Brett McKay: What you point out in the book is that some kids will take up a sport and they’ll keep with that, but then there’s some kids who don’t take up a sport for whatever reason, maybe it’s just not their thing. The problem is they think in their head, “Well, I guess physical activity in general isn’t for me,” so they kinda give up on the idea of being physically active all together, and they’ll even carry that with them into adulthood.
Daniel O’Neill: So what you’re talking about is that athletic identity, and about 25% or 20% of our kids will have that, and they’re fine, we don’t care about them, they’re gonna do great, they’re gonna be healthy, they’re going to be active, and they’re going to play sports, they’re gonna go skiing and do all the other things, but it’s that other 75% or 80% when they get to that fork in the road, that then they can identify, and I don’t like this phrase, but they identify as non-athletes, and you see that traditionally, on the ball field or on the hockey rink or wherever, where this kid is not so good at that, they don’t have much of a proclivity for that, and so then the kid starts getting that message. And the difference is, in 2022, is that they can go to the couch and then they can do something that is really cool, and that’s these crazy video games and such. Whereas back in the day when a kid wasn’t good at throwing a football or good at ballet, then she would still ride her bike and she would still play with the other kids, but now the kids have that option, and that option is cool, and as we said, incredibly addictive.
Brett McKay: ‘Cause that’s a good important distinction, so you can identify yourself as an athlete, and that’s if you play some sort of sport, whether it’s football, soccer, basketball, wrestling, whatever. Or a non-athlete. And what typically happens, you’re making the case is that when kids have that the only identity they can have about being physical is athlete, non-athlete; if they identify as non-athlete ’cause they just didn’t take to a sport, then they have a tendency just to not move their body at all in any way, so they don’t have a physical identity.
Daniel O’Neill: Right. In 2022, they lose their physical identity, they lose that inborn physical identity. And when we ignore this big cohort of children at that age and we let them head for the couch, what a horrible thing that is to do and to allow to happen, and that’s why with physical education, if we keep these kids moving, they at least have that fitness, to start doing these sports at any age or to start doing the fun things, whether it’s ballroom dancing or tennis or whatever it might be as they get older, but what’s happening is children are graduating from high school with zero fitness, and so they’re never going to pick up that tennis racket or they’re never going to start doing skiing or whatever that they might do as an adult, because they just don’t have any fitness.
Brett McKay: Well, this is a nice segue to some of your critiques on how America does physical education or helping kids develop a physical identity, and you make this really compelling, intriguing argument that the development of school sports in America has unintentionally caused more kids to not develop a physical identity, can you walk through that argument? I think it’s really interesting.
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, and this is something that I get a lot of blowback for, but it’s something we have to consider. Right now, a small percentage, generally, in the survey that I did for the book, 16%, and that was a survey across the United States, 16% of kids are playing three sports a year, and that’s what we need for them to have fitness, as opposed to one sport. So, in other words, there’s a small percentage of kids that are playing three sports a year, and again, those are children we don’t have to worry about, but this other big cohort who is not playing any sports; however, the bulk of our money, of our physical education money, if you will, is going to competitive sports, so the bulk of our money, and I think it was 86% in the book, 86% of the money is going to 16% of the children.
And that is a big problem because we are spending not millions, but billions of dollars in healthcare costs, again, getting back to what you said way at the beginning, when we have options, when we have other things we can do and with a small reallocation of that money, we could get so many kids fit and not have to pay all those healthcare costs, and then if the community is to build in competitive sports and such, that would be a great solution, but right now we’ve got to stop conflating education and school education with sports, because it’s a system that’s just not working.
Brett McKay: Right, and the argument you make is whenever sports in a school is presented as the primary way you’re gonna get physical activity at school, again, you have that problem, the athlete, non-athlete dichotomy. If a kid identifies as an athlete, they’re gonna play lots of sports, they’re gonna be fine, but as you said it’s a small percentage of kids that do that, so most of the kids, they think, “Well, I’m not good at football, I’m not good at basketball, so I’m not gonna really do any physical activity,” and then they don’t develop that physical identity.
Daniel O’Neill: Right, and these kids though are not playing on their own, that’s the difference too, so just ’cause you weren’t on the basketball team back in the day, you would still go into the backyard or out into the school yard and shoot baskets and play and play pond hockey or do whatever. But now, the other thing, the other thing I talk about in the book is that children do not know how to play on their own, and as a result, unless there is an adult there blowing a whistle, they don’t do anything, and so they don’t do pick up games. And so again, this is a perfect scenario, it could not have been set up better for the folks in Silicon Valley, ’cause now they’ve got these kids, they’ve got this 80% of our children, and they put the screws into them, and they get them addicted and that is the end of the game, and that’s what’s gone on with this generation of children.
Brett McKay: An interesting point you make, and I don’t think a lot of Americans realize this, is that the idea of sports being connected to school, that’s pretty much a uniquely American thing. In other countries schools don’t have sports programs.
Daniel O’Neill: And that’s why it has to be, in my mind, a community concept, which is, as you point out in most countries. What happened with us is in the early 1900s, when we have the huge wave of immigration, the idea of organized sports was useful for that immigrant community, it was useful for them to learn to take orders, as in the military, it was useful for them for socialization, it was useful to get them off the streets. So it worked out very well, but unfortunately, we’ve taken that system that was built for a very specific time in this country, and then now we’ve morphed it into this insane multi-zillion dollar sports industrial complex, where the companies are more than happy to have high school teams spending literally millions of dollars a year, especially down south for these teams, and it’s just not benefiting us as a society, or certainly the vast majority of children in that school.
Brett McKay: So I think in most schools in America, if you don’t… I’m talking about public schools, and that’s your primary focus with this book; if you don’t play a sport, then there’s some sort of PE requirement. I remember when I played football in high school, because I played football, I never had to take PE and I never did a PE class ’cause I was doing year-round football ’cause I had the season, and then in the off-season, we exercise. But you make this case that, okay, here’s these kids who aren’t athletes, they’ve maybe have to do a PE class, but you make the case that our PE classes aren’t that great in America today. What’s the state of American Physical Education?
Daniel O’Neill: Okay, so there are a couple of things to unpack there; number one, the amount of physical education kids get is dependent on the school district, so it’s anywhere from zero to maybe three days a week at best, almost no school has five days a week of physical education, when you get to high school, it gets even worse. In one of our local high schools that we were just quoting in the testimony of the State House, it’s out of eight semesters of high school, you have to do PE once, so in other words, it’s pretty much non-existent. The other thing that we haven’t talked about, and when you talk about not going to PE because you’re doing football, one of the things that PE does, a morning PE class is it turns on your brain.
So even for those kids that are playing field hockey and volleyball and football in the afternoon, I want those kids in the PE class at 10 o’clock in the morning, ’cause I want their brains turned on for Algebra and for English and Science. So, PE has a huge breadth of influence. The other thing is that just because you were doing gymnastics or you’re doing football, that does not make you an athlete, or I should say a fit athlete. When you specialize in certain sports, you wind up not being that kid that could climb trees and swim and do all the other things that a normal, active fit person should be doing. So, PE should help with that and rounding out those rough edges.
Brett McKay: No, it’s okay, you’re making… That’s a good point. So you’re saying you’re not against organized sports and not even against organized sports in schools, it’s just that sports should be seen as a supplement to physical education, every kid should… No matter if you’re an athlete or non-athlete, you should be doing some type of physical education in your school day.
Daniel O’Neill: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s the key, because of the academic influence that that activity has on the brain, and because it makes you into just a better, fitter individual, so just because you play football, it doesn’t mean you know how to lift weights, that’s something you hopefully would learn in the PE class, and we just gotta keep getting away from this concept that the organized sports is the panacea, not just for fitness, but for psychological health and all these other things, we just put so much on organized sports, and what we should be emphasizing is that every child who graduates from an American high school at the age of 18 should have a level of physical fitness and after that, everything can just work itself out.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah, the other problem, if you make sports the only way you get a physical identity in high school, though oftentimes you play a sport in high school, once you’re done with high school, you never play that sport again. I haven’t put on football pads in over 20 years, but I still exercise because it’s something I enjoy doing, I have a physical identity where I lift weights and do things like that. We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors. And now back to the show.
So let’s talk about this, the decrease in PE. What’s interesting, we’ve been seeing some states, some districts where they don’t even have a PE requirement, but you highlight in the book, you kinda do a history of physical education in America, where there’s been periods of time where physical education was seen as a priority in a child’s overall education. Any moments in history where it was really a priority? And then what caused the decline, like why don’t we do as much physical education today?
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, I love this. One of my favorite things to quote is in 1866, that’s 1866, California ahead of the curve, California said that every child going to school had to have two exercise periods a day, and you know that these kids were not taking the school bus to school, and you know that they were not going home and watching television. That was California, that was in 1866. But then the one that most of us remember was the President’s Council for Physical Fitness, and what happened was President Eisenhower, who as we all know, was a great General in World War II, looked around as president in the late ’50s and he says, “Boy, we’ve been out of Korea now just for a few years. We’ve been out of World War II for a decade. Our boys are getting unfit, they’re not doing enough.”
We have factories now, television was just invented and was becoming a bigger and bigger thing, fewer farmers, more people were living in the city, and Eich said, “We’ve gotta do something about this.” So he established the President’s Council of Physical Fitness. And then the one that people remember is Jack Kennedy took that and really ran with it. The problem is, is that the federal government does not have a huge influence on physical activity, it’s really just a bully pulpit, so President Kennedy can just say, “Listen, our kids who are unfit and we’ve gotta get them moving,” and they started this Council on Physical Fitness, and they got a lot of high schools. There were like 4000 high schools that were involved with this, but then that just faded away now, and now it’s still out there, but it’s not nearly the same influence that it had back then.
Brett McKay: Now you highlight one high school in the ’60s that really took up Kennedy’s call to make physical education a priority, and that’s La Sierra High. We actually did a podcast a couple of years ago, a guy did a documentary about La Sierra called The Motivation Factor, and this was some really intense PE, you watch these videos, these kids and it’s impressive.
Daniel O’Neill: Oh yeah, it’s great and I would have your listeners punch that up ’cause it’s fantastic. I criticize that a little bit in the book, because I know all these kids are fit, they’re all boys, you don’t see any of the girls, and obviously that’s an issue, but the one great thing about it is, this was really basic stuff and you remember watching the videos, this was not fancy equipment. Somebody sent something to me yesterday about a playnasium in… Where was it? It was in Australia, and it was these fancy pieces of equipment you put on a playground and the parent can exercise while the kid is on the machine, you’re using the kid’s weight basically as your lifting weight and stuff.
But it was this incredibly expensive piece of equipment that’s going to break down, that’s going to get old; with the La Sierra thing, these kids are swinging on bars, doing push-ups, nothing fancy at all. And that’s really the point here, all of our movement patterns, they’re not different, we’re the same animals that we were 250,000 years ago, we don’t need fancy equipment, we don’t need to rethink things, and it’s all there, we have all the research. And it’s just a question of getting these kids to that gym class, the minute they get over that threshold, they are moving. And that’s all that we need to do.
Brett McKay: It was interesting, in the La Sierra documentary, the filmmaker interviewed students who went through the program, so it was a lot of boys, and I guess La Sierra they started… It became co-ed, the PE program later on in the ’70s, so there are some women they will interview. And it was interesting, all of them talked about that helped them develop… They didn’t say in these words, but they said it helped them develop a physical identity. You talked to some… I think one guy had some sort of surgery where he couldn’t walk, a knee surgery, and he went back to his days in La Sierra, it’s like, well, you just get a little bit better every day by walking a little bit further. And so that’s the power of a good physical education program, it can instill that in you and it will last you until you’re 67 years old.
Daniel O’Neill: Absolutely. And what we have today is this Naperville, Illinois… Anybody from Naperville High School give me a shout and let me know how your experience was, but I talk about that in the book. And we have examples of this. And as you say, this is not rocket science, this is because this is in our genes, we want to move, we want to feel resistance, we want to swing and run and do these things, this is all inbred, we’re not trying to make our bodies do something that it’s not meant to do. We were meant to run and walk 10 miles a day as hunter-gatherers, that’s what we’re programmed to do, and that’s what we have that inner need to do, we have this primitive part of our brain and we have to use it on a daily basis for things to go well.
Brett McKay: So besides spending less time, making kids spend less time in physical education, the other problem with PE is, when they do go, the classes aren’t that great. I remember… This was 20 years ago. Sometimes you’d walk through a PE class and you see it going on and half the kids were just sitting on the bleachers and then the other kids were playing basketball. I mean, that was it. Can you describe what is it? Is that indicative of what a typical PE class in America looks like? It’s just half the kids participating and half the kids not.
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, it’s exactly that. And it’s the kids with the physical identities they’re out there participating, and the kids that are not that are on their cell phones. One of the PE teachers we interviewed for the book, she said she’s gotten to the point where she has to look under kid’s hats if they’re wearing a wool beanie or something, because they have ear phones in and they’re talking to their friends in PE class, their friends probably somewhere else in the school. It’s absolutely incredible what the kids without a physical identity will do to get out of activity.
And that’s why in the book, we delineate, we give you a month of PE classes, and we delineate exactly what these kids can be doing for that 30 or 45 minutes that you have them, and that’s getting them moving because that’s what’s going to give us, not only the health benefits, but again, the academic benefits, if you don’t get that heart rate up, every kid, then you’re not going to get any of the benefits from it. Yeah, the PE teachers, that old PE teacher has to move out of the way, if that’s the way you’re running your class, if half of your kids are just sitting around, you better rethink what’s going on because these kids are not getting a physical education, they’re getting addicted.
Brett McKay: And one of the arguments you make in terms of we need to do to revamp physical education is you actually have to have some standards, you actually have to hold these kids accountable, and you make this interesting argument, if the kid’s not doing well in math… Well, the teacher is gonna sit down with them and say, “Hey, what could we do to help you with your math?” But when it comes to physical education, if a kid doesn’t participate, for some reason, we feel like we can’t force a kid to do PE, it’s like, well, they don’t see themselves as an athlete, we don’t wanna embarrass themselves, but you’re making this case like, “No, we have to hold these kids accountable, and actually have some standards that we’re trying to help them shoot for when it comes to their physical education.”
Daniel O’Neill: Brett, physical education is the most important class your child is going to in school. What our schools almost have to become now is physical education first, second and third, that’s gotta be the main focus because the kids are not fit enough to learn science and math. And guess what? You can learn a lot of science and math on the internet, and nobody… Nobody else has said this, and I’m sure I’m going to be a hassle for this, but what the kids are not getting at home and they’re not getting on the weekends and in the summer, unless they have motivated parents, they’re not getting any physical education.
So, our schools should become for 180 days a year, the main thing we’re teaching “our kids” is PE, in other words, the main thing we’re doing with our kids is getting them moving, that is the absolute best thing we can do for their education and for their health and for their adulthood than anything else, because guess what, you can learn, you can pick up that extra math time or that extra English time on the computer on your own time, but unless you have the health to learn these things, it’s just not gonna happen. My main mantra is, “There’s no STEM without fitness.”
Brett McKay: Right. We’ve had guests on the podcast talking about the cognitive benefits of fitness, particularly in children, and schools that make play or physical activity priority, the kids typically do better. But what’s interesting, a lot of public school particularly, have a lot of pressure to perform well on the standardized tests, so they… To prepare for the standardized test, they take away from PE or outdoor time or play time, and the kids don’t do better, and it’s like, again, you’re saying, what are you doing? If you just made PE priority, this could probably solve that problem of trying to help the kids do better on these tests.
Daniel O’Neill: Absolutely no question. Absolutely no question. What’s the most important thing we can do to stave off Alzheimer’s disease? And that’s exercise, it’s not crosswords or Sudoku, it’s exercise, and the best way to get a STEM, you know, get a smart, healthy kid is exercise. It’s the same thing, and that’s what we absolutely have to be emphasizing. And as you point out, when we took all the time away from PE, which was mainly where the time came from, for no child left behind in 2002, nothing changed, nothing really changed with our Math and English scores because the kids are not fit enough to learn Math and English. So what we have to do is make PE the priority, the physical education teacher is the first violin in the school. That’s the person who’s really running things, and that’s the person who’s going to make the difference.
When I was doing my psychiatric rotation at the VA hospital, there was a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a social worker, and the social worker was the guy who was in charge of getting the VA benefits and stuff for these vets, and he said to me, he says, “I cure more patients than the psychologists and the psychiatrists.” And they actually, they laughed and they nodded ’cause he was right. In other words, that’s what we have to be doing in the school, the PE teacher. And you alluded to it before, there’s a lot of social issues, again, historic social issues with the PE in our schools and a lot of kids hated it, and because they were getting their glasses knocked off being hit by a volleyball, etcetera, etcetera, we’ve gotta get rid of all that stuff and we’ve gotta make it fun again, because that’s where the… Literally, that’s where the money is.
Brett McKay: Alright, so PE in America, most schools probably aren’t doing it, they’re not making their kids do it. If the kid is doing it, they’re probably not doing anything in the class. It’s like a blow off class where you can get an easy A. Are there any school districts? You mentioned that one in Illinois that’s doing a good job of PE. What does their PE class look like?
Daniel O’Neill: Well, the problem with them is they have a lot of money, and so if you again, punch up, when you punch up the La Sierra films, punch up the Naperville, Illinois films, and they have pools and they have kayaks, and they have a beautiful track, and they have all this cool stuff. And that does make it easier. And if we can talk about that unpleasant topic of money, I’m not a technology guy, I’m like you, I’m a mother nature guy, I just wanna go out and play and hike and get out in the woods, but it is 2022 and kids do like technology, and so with a small investment in technology, at our one school, we just have a step recorder, so if the kid is standing there, they don’t stand there, they walk in place ’cause they wanna get some step credit. And so there are some technology that can be really useful, and because such a big percentage of kids have iPhones and personal phones already, we can use that for some quantitative information, so again, something to motivate the kids, similar to the Fitbits and the Apple watches.
Brett McKay: What sort of… Like you mentioned in the book, you have like an ideal, like a month-long class of PE, schedules for PE classes. What kind of stuff would you like to see kids doing in a PE class? And again, this is under the assumption. Your assumption is every kid in the school should be doing PE, whether they’re playing a sport or not, with that said, what would you have these kids be doing in PE?
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, so you need to be able to have some certain functional movement patterns, I mentioned you should be able to run, ideally, kid could be swimming and cycling, but that’s not something you’re gonna get in PE, you need to be able to defend yourself, so you need to have certain objects flying around, so to a certain extent, but it doesn’t have to be a volleyball or some projectile that’s going to hurt you. You need to be able to swing hockey stick or a bat or this kind of thing, but these are all really simple things and they have these big, safe toys now, for lack of a better word, that the kids can use. And again, on the scheme of things, compared to a football team, they’re cheap, cheap, cheap, and they get these movement patterns, they have the kids doing these movement patterns. Obviously, core exercises are huge, but it can be fun if you just do it right and getting out and running full speed can be fun if you do it right, if you motivate the kids, if you make it a game and you make it something that they wanna participate in and that they see the benefit of, and they’re gonna see the benefit in their fitness and they’re gonna see the benefit in their fun factor.
Brett McKay: No, a lot of the activities, a lot of them are just games where they’re running around, your goal is just to get these kids heart going and get a little sweaty so that they can get that physical activity they need.
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, that’s… At the end of the day, that’s really all that matters. If no kid wants to necessarily just run for 30 minutes, but you know what, that’s really the most important thing, get them sweaty, get that heart pounding, ’cause that’s gonna get that brain pounding, and that’s what’s going to really make the effect, but they could be crawling and they could be kicking and they could be doing all sorts of fun stuff, and most importantly, whenever you can, is getting the kids outside, ’cause we do want these kids to get addicted to mother nature and get rid of their addiction to the computer.
Brett McKay: I was thinking, as you were talking sort of what your goals are for PE, a great platform that you can help teach kids these basic functional movements is MovNat. Have you ever heard of MovNat?
Daniel O’Neill: I have not.
Brett McKay: So yeah, it was started by this guy Erwan Le Corre, it’s based on this thing from the 19th century in France, this guy named Georges Hebert, who had developed this physical culture method called the natural method, and it was all about just teaching and training people how to do basic movements, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, swimming, and he said if you can just focus on those things, you’re gonna be good as a human being, and I think MovNat would be a great platform to teach these kids to move. ‘Cause it’s fun, it doesn’t require any equipment, so there’d be like no extra cost, ’cause that’s an idea too. I would look into that if you’re looking in for another way to encourage better PE.
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, I love that. But you’re making the point, there’s nothing magic about this. Dudley Sargent was around 100 years ago, and his name is on the physical therapy school at Boston University. And one of the things I mentioned in the book is that if Dudley Sargent came back and he saw what was going on in a PE class today, he would be horrified. On the other hand if William Osler showed up and he came to my operating theater today, he would be blown away. PE has not made the gains, but it’s also… They don’t need to make a lot of gains, we have this… As you point out, back in the 1800s, these basic movements are the same, basic movements, there’s nothing magical about this, ’cause we are the same human beings we were 100 years ago and 100,000 years ago. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Brett McKay: So let’s say there’s a parent listening to this and they’re looking at their kid’s PE class and like, “Boy, yeah, my kid’s PE class, not great.” Any advice to get administrators on-board with revamping PE? ‘Cause it just seems like PE is one of those things that school districts and school boards give the short shrift to.
Daniel O’Neill: Absolutely, and I interview on my website, the survivalofthefit.net. I interview a principal, elementary school principal, and she says that. She says, you know, we get to these meetings, principal meetings, and PE is at the end of the schedule, if at all. So yes, for your listeners, survivalofthefit.net, and there, there are letters that you can download to send to your school administrators, to send to your teachers, to send to your PTA members, and we can get this revolution, what I call the PE revolution going from below. The other thing is, as I said earlier, I was down at our State House last week, we’re trying to do it from above also. So we have a bill in the New Hampshire State House right now to mandate PE for every kid every day. And if we can do this pincer mechanism from both sides, if we can get the grassroots going and we can get things going in state legislatures, that’s when we’re gonna make the real progress.
Brett McKay: And I think it’s an easy sell, at least the way you describe in the book, you can just go to your administrator or a school board and say, “Look, I got something that won’t cost that much more extra money or not even any extra money, and it can help with behavior problems in classroom, it can potentially help with test scores, so what do you think?” And like, “Oh yeah, I would… Yeah, let’s do that.” And it’s like, well, yeah, just get the kid moving, let’s have PE every day.
Daniel O’Neill: Exactly, and it’s amazing because it’s exactly what you say, this is one of those topics where nobody disagrees with me, I mean, this is not a political topic, this is not a religious topic, this is so basic, and every American out there says, “Yeah, kids don’t play, kids aren’t having as much fun as we had when we were kids, what’s going on with all that?” There’s no controversy here, but where the controversy exists is that they’re gonna get in there and they’re gonna say, “Well, we’re mandated to have X number of minutes of English everyday, and X number of minutes of math every day, and on and on and on. There’s just no room for PE.”
But what I would tell that administrator and that principle is that any data you have from education that’s more than 10 years old is useless, it’s absolutely useless because the world changed in the last 10 years. While we weren’t looking the kids became severely addicted to these two-dimensional entertainments, and as you point out, they’re on these bloody things for seven and a half hours a day. It’s absolutely extraordinary. That happened in the last decade. Anything you know about education, anything you wanna think about in terms of teaching math or science or English, forget about all that stuff because this crisis has overwhelmed everything.
Brett McKay: And let’s say there’s a parent… They’re making these moves to help PE get better in their school district, but it’s just… You’re dealing with bureaucracy. Things are gonna be slow, there’s a lot of red tape. Any advice for parents who have kids who are in a school that don’t have robust PE program to get them developing a physical identity?
Daniel O’Neill: Yeah, the main thing is don’t let your child lose the physical identity. Your two-year-old, your three-year-old is fine, they have a physical identity, let them keep going, get them outside. Same… When we were kids, right? Kick ’em outside, come back when it gets dark, it’s just, if you allow that child to keep their physical identity, they will, because mother nature is still more interesting than any video game. If you wanna get your kid involved with organized sports and stuff, that’s fine too. But make sure the child knows it’s their sport, it’s not your sport, they don’t want you there screaming at refs.
They want you there to take them there and to be supportive and stuff, but you don’t need to go to every game, you don’t need to scream at anybody and the coaches or the refs or the kid for that matter, it’s all about play. And obviously on the weekends and in the summer, but you wanna make… You can look around, is your kid enjoying the ball sports? Well, maybe they would like to do a mountain biking clinic, or it’s some kind of swimming activity or horseback riding or any of these things, but they gotta get outside, and that’s where the addiction is gonna come, that’s where the positive addiction is gonna come.
Brett McKay: And I imagine just being an example yourself, your kids pick up on that. Have a culture of physical activity in your family.
Daniel O’Neill: And that’s right. And Brett, that’s one of the big problems now is that the adults have lost their physical identity and they have bad food in the cupboard and they are not being active on the weekends, and so you’re right, we’re dealing with some parents that just aren’t on-board but the vast majority of parents will be for sure.
Brett McKay: Well, Dan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Daniel O’Neill: Right. Survivalofthefit.net is the website. We have tons and tons of content there, my email is there, [email protected], and I would just implore anybody to shoot me an email, go to the website, pick up the book that’s available at all the local outlets, your indie bookstore outlets and such and be part of this PE revolution, because truly this is the most important thing, and we’ve seen this in the last two years with COVID. Fitness is absolutely paramount to everything, and it could help and change so many things for the positive.
Brett McKay: Well, Dan O’Neill, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Daniel O’Neill: Thank you Brett, any time.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Dan O’Neill, he’s the author of the book, Survival of the Fit, it’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere, you can find more information about his book at his website survivalofthefit.net, also check out our show notes at aom.is/pe where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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