The Benefits of Physical Education: How Innovative Teachers Help Students Thrive

by Heather Nelson

For students in elementary, middle, or high school, the long-term benefits of physical education classes are not always evident—but strong teachers with innovative ideas are changing that. These educators find creative and evidence-based ways to help students tune into their bodies, minds, and attitudes.

Here’s a look at the benefits of physical education programs, how educators design their lessons to bring out the best in their students, and what the future may bring to this space.

Advantages of Physical Education

The benefits associated with physical education programming go far beyond accomplishments made in the gym. When students have the opportunity to step away from their desks and move their bodies in a physical education class, they gain the benefits of mental health support, stress relief, heart health, and more.

The Institute of Medicine reported that physically active students are more focused, better retain information, and problem-solve more successfully than their less active peers. While the benefits of physical education are clear, ensuring students get the most from P.E. comes down to innovative and well-trained educators.

Innovation in Physical Education for Today’s Classroom

When most people think of physical education, they think of running laps and climbing a rope in the middle of the school gym. However, the most effective physical education teachers know there’s much more to P.E. than jogging and climbing.

Andrew Alstot, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Azusa Pacific University, explained that “good physical educators create comprehensive educational programs that go beyond simply getting kids physically active.” He said he encourages teachers to expose students to various physical activities, which helps them find activities they love.

The goal is to help students grow and to provide positive feedback and guidance so that they become comfortable participating in physical activity outside of school. One way teachers do this is through tailored lessons, ensuring activities are accessible yet challenging for each student.

Greg Bellinder, M.S., assistant professor at APU, teaches future physical educators to differentiate their instruction to meet the individual needs of all students— a method called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). He explained what this might look like in the classroom:

“Consider a warm-up jog at the beginning of a lesson. The classic approach required all students to jog a lap around the track. Depending on ability level, some students finished in about two minutes and waited much longer than that until the very last students finished. During this downtime, slower students were embarrassed, knowing the rest of the class was waiting for them. Taking a UDL approach, a physical educator would create a warm-up circle with a much smaller radius. Instead of requiring students to run the same distance, she or he would have them jog as many laps around the smaller circle in a set time, challenging each student to complete a number of laps that are personally challenging. At the end of four minutes, for instance, everyone stops jogging. The faster students have been challenged at their level while the slower students have been challenged at their level. No student has been stigmatized. The teacher now has additional instructional minutes for skill-based instruction.”

Innovative physical education means meeting students at their level, providing guidance to strengthen skills, and instilling a lifetime love of movement. As instructors look to the future, including these innovative lessons in their curriculum can pave the way for students to embrace physical education.

The Future of Physical Education

The future of physical education is not only physical! APU’s Janna Sanchez, M.S., said educators have the unique responsibility to shift the focus from physical competition and winning to the discoveries that can be made through activity and play. By tapping into students’ capabilities and strengths, physical educators can do more than simply teach a sport, she said.

“Physical education programs should not be based on sports alone, but on positive movement opportunities that enhance self-esteem, worth, dignity, and self-discipline,” said Sanchez. “A child is able to capitalize on their own personal strengths and learn from their weaknesses when they comprehend how to work with others in a variety of settings. That is what physical education and play are all about.”

The best physical education programs provide space for students to develop their bodies and minds—and the future of P.E. is continuing further in that direction. With teachers committed to creating lesson plans that strengthen students from the inside out, the days of dreading gym class may be coming to an end.