Josh Fullan is the director of Maximum City, a national education and engagement organization.

Here’s a grim consideration: Canadian teens today may have some of the lowest levels of physical activity of any peer group in history.

In a study of more than 10,000 Ontario families that I led between the spring and early summer of last year, only 2.8 per cent of young people aged 12 to 17 met the guidelines of the Canadian Society of exercise physiology for physical activity and recommendations for outdoor play. Nearly a third have gone the week without ever hitting the optimal daily hour of vigorous physical activity – the kind of sweaty movement that gets your heart pumping and delivers maximum health benefits, including brain performance optimal.

Part of this trend is a hangover from the COVID-19 pandemic, but much of it predates that pestilential first spring. After all, Ontario has more than 600,000 high school students who must earn a grand total of physical and health education credit for their degree. In practical terms, this means that a student may take a physical education class in the first semester of ninth grade and then never take one again, which many do. Sports programs can make up for the lack of activity, but only for some.

It would therefore be easy to conclude that students are simply not interested in physical education or fall into the old tropes of lazy teenagers getting rid of what is good for them. The twin bogeymen of video games and social media are surely also to blame. But the truth is more complex. Systems establish priorities and values. In our schools, this top-down approach can lead to a narrow focus on achievement in numeracy, literacy and science at the expense of other skills, including physical skills; show me your degree requirements, and I’ll tell you what the school system values.

So, for too many high school students, developing a lesson schedule is a zero-sum game. Taking physical education classes can mean missing an elective they’re passionate about or giving up a credit required to pursue post-secondary education. Students might also worry about how a poor grade in physical education might affect their GPA. Those with body image or self-esteem issues will also avoid it. None of these pressures align with what should be a goal for every adolescent: exercise for the sake of health on the road to building an active lifestyle..

There is, however, a false paradigm here: that gym classes and good grades are mutually antagonistic. In fact, research has shown that physical activity is a ballast for academic performance, not an anchor. The Naperville Zero Hour study, highlighted in Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey’s book Spark, details how the Illinois school district leveraged early morning aerobic exercise to achieve better academic test scores, not to mention happier, more engaged students. Closer to home, some schools have adopted their own daily physical activity programs for high school students; provinces such as British Columbia and Manitoba require more than one physical education credit to graduate.

Recently, schools have taken more responsibility for student well-being, a seemingly complementary goal driven in part by the alarming rise in student mental health problems and a deeper understanding that learning does not flourish. without purpose or belonging. However, the potential of this new orientation is wasted without making the connection between physical and mental health.

Physical activity has been shown to increase feelings of self-efficacy and reduce depression, anxiety, stress, loss of control – the very challenges many young people face. Whether we emerge from the pandemic or enter a new wave, the greatest act of care that schools can provide may be to ensure that all students participate in physical activities, so they can see the benefits for themselves.

Making physical education classes mandatory is one way to do this. Another way is to make physical activity a whole-school responsibility by incorporating movement into active school trips and various lessons: neighborhood walks in social studies, for example, or dance and improvisation in art lessons. dramatic. Parents also need to be active with their children and encourage them. It’s also important that schools don’t grade all physical activity: make it focus on skill building and development, but remove the stakes – or, as they did in Naperville, grading students based on effort.

Our schools should teach fitness, not sports; they should ensure that every adolescent receives a daily minimum of quality physical activity, preferably early in the day. They need to make it social and inclusive. Above all, they should show students what they value by telling them why it’s a priority: because the best evidence indicates that physical activity supports their learning, health, and happiness like nothing else. To our knowledge.

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