University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 1/1995
Shaping the future of high school gym classes

     If you were the child who stood with pounding heart and
sweating palms, dreading your turn to jump over the sawhorse in
gym class, take heart. Thanks to the efforts of two University
professors, in cooperation with a progressive school system in
Cecil County, Md., gym class is no longer just for athletes.
     As developed by John J. (Jack) O'Neill, director of
recreation and intramural programs, and Avron Abraham, assistant
professor of physical education, the new gym program is fitness-
based rather than skill-oriented, emphasizing health-related
components of fitness and the individuality of each student. The
daily physical activity remains, but standard P.E.
equipment-volleyball nets, basketballs and other team sport
necessities-have been replaced with VCR's and large-screen
televisions (for showing aerobic tapes), heart monitors, weights
and floor slides (where students can slide in the motion of speed
skaters on a film-like floor covering).
     "Physical education programs of the '70s and '80s were very
skill oriented, very sports activity-based," O'Neill says. "Many
of us have been preaching change, identifying that fitness is the
foundation of what we want to build our systems on.
     "In the past, it was the talented athletes who dominated
physical education classes, and the other kids would back out if
they didn't fit in. Physical education was something less than it
could be.
     "This program teaches children to develop a personal fitness
program. Hopefully, for some, it will create a lifestyle change.
They will see that lifelong activity is good for everyone.
     "It's been very well established in the fields of medicine
and physical education exactly what it takes to develop a
personal fitness program. All of those components-warm up,
vigorous exercise for 20 minutes and cool down, three times a
week-are built into this program," O'Neill says.
     And, while no official surveys have been taken, informal
word-of-mouth feedback from students and parents is extremely
     The program was implemented last year at the high school
level, Abraham says. All of it is geared toward personalized goal
setting, where students try to better their own records, not
compete against anyone else.
     The students spend four days working out in the gym and one
day in the classroom, where a textbook and videos reinforce the
theories they have been putting into action.
     "The curriculum is knowledge-based," Abraham says. "The
students have to know what they're doing and why."
     The research possibilities connected with the program are
numerous, and O'Neill and Abraham hope to study cardiovascular
endurance and muscle strength benefits. Other factors, such as
the relationships between fitness and academic achievement,
fitness and self-esteem, absenteeism and discipline also are
possible research topics, O'Neill says.
     "For students who are non-competitive, the approach is much
more easy-going," says Pat Zang, Delaware '74, a physical
education teacher at Elkton High School.
     She has heard very few complaints about the workout portion
of the program. The academic side, however, has taken some
     "The kids aren't used to having to keep a notebook for
physical education, and they don't like the idea of a written
test. But, that will change as the program is implemented in the
lower grades and the students get used to this approach," Zang
     Currently, all ninth graders in Cecil County high schools
must take an 18-week personal fitness course. They gain a
knowledge base of fitness rather than sports, Zang says.
     "In the past, physical education was about playing games,"
Zang says. "We still play games, but now we do that as a means of
getting fit-not of learning the game. We may, for example, have
them play four-on-four soccer. The students will log that in
their notebooks and check their heart rates. Students learn how
to find their target heart-rate and may wear heart monitors to
see progress during exercise."
     Once finished with the ninth grade cycle, the high school
students have a choice of four electives in physical
education-aerobics, a strength class, a cross training class and
a walk/run/jog class. The hope is that, once the program is
offered on all grade levels, students will have such an
appreciation for fitness that they will choose the electives.
     This year, Zang says, both the weight-training and aerobics
electives have high enrollments.
     "The girls in my aerobics class love it," she says, adding
that she is right in there with them, exercising to the tape,
                                                -Beth Thomas