Why you hate the gym now may be tied to your old PE class

For some of us, physical education class was a nightmare we would like to forget. We endured the humiliation of getting picked last for teams, the embarrassment of feeling our gangly bodies on display for all to judge in the locker room. These memories leave a lasting impression on our attitudes towards exercise as an adult, a new study in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine found. If you had strong memories of thinking up flimsy excuses to avoid gym class, it explains why you may avoid the gym now as an adult.

The study, which surveyed participants about their emotionally-charged PE class memories, found that “childhood memories of PE are associated with [physical activity] attitude, intention, and sedentary behavior in adulthood.”

PE class shapes our exercise attitudes as an adult

Researchers surveyed more than a thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 45 about their childhood gym class and found that it holds “remarkably vivid positive and negative memories” for the participants. For those who remembered PE class fondly, it shaped their positive views towards exercise as an adult, having “small-to-moderate associations” with the time they spent moving and exercising as an adult.

But if you remembered being chosen last for teams as a middle schooler, you were more likely to spend more time sitting down during the week decades later as an adult. Participants’ worst memories of PE were often during the socially awkward years of sixth and seventh grade. The top reasons for hating PE included embarrassment. The embarrassment of being bad at a sport and being made to feel incompetent by the teacher or other classmates accounted for 37% of all bad PE associations. Lack of enjoyment over PE itself (18%) and hating the judging eyes in the locker room (14%) were others reasons listed.

Participants were not only haunted by bullying kids, but bullying teachers. “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 [physical activity] during lessons because, allegedly, some students ‘needed it.’ ”

To combat these negative associations from becoming bad habits, the researchers suggest that we need to make PE more fun for children. “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,” they concluded. To make PE fun again, it means recognizing that one person’s fun dodgeball class is another person’s nightmare.

Once you make exercise a personally enjoyable activity, you teach your brain that it’s something to look forward to each week.

As actor Terry Crews advises, “treat the gym like a spa.” He says that if you want to make the gym a habit, you have to make it feel good: “The habit of going to the gym is more important than the work out. Because it doesn’t matter what you do. You can have fun — but as long as you’re having fun, you continue to do it.”