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Do Varsity Sports Pose a Barrier to Tackling Obesity?

Personally, despite all of its known health benefits, I do not believe that a focus on physical activity alone will do much to prevent or reverse the obesity problem.

I do however, very much favour the idea, that everyone – male or female, young or old, skinny or fat – should engage in more physical activity for the sake of better mental and physical health.

I also very much support the positive influence that physical education (PE) in the school environment can have on kids – even if it were only to improve their school performance and perhaps lay a foundation for future activities.

Interestingly enough, however, an article by Amis and colleagues from the University of Memphis, TN, published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that one of the major barriers (among many others) to increasing physical education in schools may in fact be varsity sports.

The researchers examined the implementation and outcomes of three new state-level, school-oriented childhood obesity policies enacted between 2004 and 2007 in 8 high schools in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Data included interviews with policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students, observations of school-based activities, and available documents.

Two major barriers were identified to the implementation of these policies: a value system that prioritizes performances in standardized tests and a varsity sport system that negatively influences opportunities for physical activity.

While the former barrier (focus on academic performance testing, reinforced through the ‘No Child Left Behind Policy’) was not all that surprising, the second barrier certainly is worth dissecting further.

As the authors note:

“The prevalence and profile of high-school varsity sport, particularly football and basketball, is well recognized across the United States. Less well documented are the effects that varsity sport has on the operation of schools. We found several ways in which the predominance of varsity sport negatively affected the provision of PE in general, and the implementation of the new obesity-related policies in particular.”

Specific finding in this regarded included prioritization of space and scheduling and reservation of the best and newest equipment for varsity athletes, with the vast majority of students not having access to these resources for PE.

“The prioritization of varsity sport over PE was well known within the schools in our study, as a classroom teacher from Gold Coast explained, “When we say PE, we mean basketball. . . . Having a good basketball team is important; PE is not.” Such a position was generally not seen as problematic, and was justified by the principal at Smith: I don’t care what anybody says, when you win [at] football, it sets the precedence [sic] for your students’ spirit and school pride and things like that, and that carries over into how they perform in the classroom.”

In virtually all schools, the majority of PE staff also coached varsity teams and in many cases, varsity coaches were called on to fill PE teaching vacancies. In fact, “PE teachers” were commonly and openly hired for their varsity coaching skills rather than for PE teaching skills.

Not surprisingly,

“…most PE teachers in our study exhibited behaviors that suggested that they were more interested in improving the perfor- mance of their varsity teams than in increasing levels of physical activity across the student body.”

This interest (or rather disinterest) of PE staff was also reflected in the curriculum that were offered:

“…prioritization of varsity sport over PE was reflected in the provision of PE curricula that were not diverse enough to appeal to a broad swath of students…Indeed, PE class was often viewed as a way to get extra training for varsity athletes. Girls seemed particularly disadvantaged by this, with complaints about the PE curriculum widespread in our student focus groups, exemplified by this quote from Demetra, a student at Adams: “I really don’t like [PE] . . . we don’t really play anything but basketball, and I don’t know how to play basketball, so I just sit in the stands, and walk sometimes.”

Thus, the researchers found that varsity sports had a profound negative effect on physical education of the student body both by prioritization of facility use by varsity athletes as well as a focus of PE teachers on improving athletic prowess and skills in varsity type activities (football, basketball, etc.) rather than in mass-participation activities.

It is therefore by no means surprising that the researchers come to the conclusion that:

“…the prospect of using PE to raise activity levels is unlikely unless PE teachers see their primary roles as rounded physical educators rather than as varsity coaches.”

While this may have little consequences when it comes to the issue of preventing or reducing obesity, its consequences for population health are profound, especially if the consequences of varsity sports are to deny meaningful physical education to the vast majority of students.

I cannot help but wonder, if along with calling for the removal of pop machines and junk food from schools it is also time to begin calling for the elimination of varsity sports from those same institutions.

Oh, but then again, perhaps without the ample revenues from the former, it may simply be a matter of time before the latter problem takes care of itself.

I would certainly love to hear from readers regarding their experiences with varsity sports programs and how such programs may have affected their own or their kids’ activities.

Edmonton, Alberta

ResearchBlogging.orgAmis JM, Wright PM, Dyson B, Vardaman JM, & Ferry H (2012). Implementing Childhood Obesity Policy in a New Educational Environment: The Cases of Mississippi and Tennessee. American journal of public health PMID: 22420819



  1. I don’t think the situation in Canadian schools is the same as US schools.
    Here there’s not such an extreme emphasis on varsity high school sports.
    I think it’s good that kids get to play varsity (ie interschool ) sports. it’s not for everyone, but that’s ok.
    There are also specialized activities for kids who have other talents and interests – music; debating clubs; robot clubs, video clubs, etc., and while there are some groups anybody can join, some groups are by audition and some pick their best members to compete on away trips, which is equivalent to varsity in sports.

    I agree that the problem you talk about exists, but I think it is in the nature of PE, not in a focus on varsity. “Physical education” is still basically about sports, not health. To be healthy there is no need to involve projectiles like balls, or competitions, or mindless repetitive drills, or having to wear shorts, or getting sweaty when there is NO PRIVATE place to shower and dress (if there’s any place at all). The focus is on games and exercises, which many people find really foolish and irritating. The school PE teacher complains that students are too lazy for PE – but I know these kids will dance for hours. Some of the “lazy” guys skateboard, surf, and work at part-time construction jobs.

    PE and house leagues are great for sports types, and varsity is great for the talented and keen athletes.
    If you want a school-based healthy activity program for non-athletes, the best thing would be to make PRIVATE shower/change facilities available, and do something totally non – sports oriented.

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  2. Wow. What a great post and something I have thought needed to be brought in the open. Although the American system is different from our Canadian system of PE, we are catching up and allowing Team Sports to take over the schools. When I was in high school in the late 60’s-early 70’s, and fat, our PE teachers did very little to encourage fitness. As a girl, we were sometimes allowed to try team sports but all I remember is line dancing to stupid songs. Of course anything team oriented and I was always picked last–a scar I have carried to this day. When my kids were in school in the 80’s and 90’s team sports seemed to rule the PE scene. Not all of us are cut-out or are even interested in team sports. And it is rare to find the majority of girls interested in football, baseball or basketball except as a spectator sport.

    I do not have an answer. But what is funny is that I left high school thin (40 pounds lighter). I think it was mainly because I started walking 1.5 km to and from high school–it certainly wasn’t the PE classes. My kids also lost the bus ride since the high school was close by and they had to walk 1 km each way. Perhaps we should just skip the buses and make our kids walk further.

    Until there is an alternative in place, or our PE teachers take a different approach, we will not change. With cut-backs to schools, including the amount of physical fitness classes I think we are stuck with parents taking on the role of getting their kids out of the house, to the park, hopscotch, hiking, anything that isn’t sitting eating junk in front of the TV/Computer. But if parents don’t accept this as part of their job then there is very little that can be done.

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  3. The connection between physical activity and weight is tenuous at best. Our niece was plump until she began playing basketball in high school. Then she became as slim as our oldest daughter of similar age. Our daughter is still slim but our niece is perhaps eighty pounds heavier than when she was playing basketball. Why the contrasting weights? Could be differences in appetite, food quality, genetic make up or some combination of the three.

    Regarding the current so-called obesity epidemic, these observations by Emily Greene may be pertinent:

    “I have long suspected that the best way to lose weight was to eat rich food in moderation, not diet food in abundance. During the last 52 weeks, I put that idea to the test. And I lost 52 pounds. To my knowledge, not a single low-fat food passed my lips…For me, the result of this diet was not simply weight loss, not simply fresh delight in rediscovering good, simple things; it was vigor. My eyes are brighter, my skin is better and–to the astonishment of my neighbors–I now bound out of the house in the morning wearing a sweatsuit. Which brings the story to the exercise part. I didn’t lose weight just by eating all this good stuff and tossing back Pinot Noir. I lost weight eating good, nourishing food that gave me energy to exercise.”

    Now consider the experience of South African fitness expert Timothy Noakes. After many years of spent following the conventional method of carbohydrate loading prior to endurance events he found that carbohydrate restriction, for him, improved both weight profile and athletic performance. Here’s what he said:

    “I submitted myself to an experiment of rigorously avoiding all bread, cereals, rice, pasta, and refined carbohydrates and replacing that nutritional deficit with healthy meats, fish, fruit, vegetables and fats, including nuts. Five months later, I am at my lightest weight in 20 years and I am running faster than I have in 20 years. For the first time since I ran heroic weekly mileages in training have I learned exactly how to maintain an ideal body weight without any sense of privation. And with only as much exercise as I want to do. Even my friends are impressed. They agree that not even the most expensive cosmetic surgery could have produced such a remarkable change”

    Note that carbohydrate restriction is not appropriate for everyone. Each person should tailor his dietary intake of fat, protein, and carbohydrate to his metabolic profile and activity level.

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  4. First of all, I’m not sure that American schools are as focused on varsity sports as this article suggests. However, it is absolutely true that the PE teachers are coaches first, teachers second. I remember playing a variety of sports and participating in a lot of activities in gym classes (taught by coaches) in high school: badmitten, softball, volleyball, gymnastics, swimming, track and field, even ballroom dancing. This was as a fat kid in the US in the 1980s.

    Now, these classes would have been vastly better if they’d been less focused on the most athletic kids, if there’d been a bit more tailoring of activities to different abilities, if there had been more fun, noncompetitive activities, and if we’d learned some physiology (for example, what muscle groups do we have, what do they do, how can they be strengthened, how can they be stretched?). I got picked close to last a lot too, and it wasn’t nice.

    However, except for the distance running, I didn’t hate gym and I didn’t think it was useless. I was a band geek, and marching band kept me pretty fit (for a fat chick). I really excelled at that, and I didn’t expect to be a teacher’s pet in gym. Nobody pays attention to the worst musicians in band, so why would anyone pay attention to me in gym, right?

    And that’s what it comes down to. American high schools have a very competitive culture. At the time, it seemed natural that the star athletes would dominate the gym classes. The coaches may have looked down their noses at me, but I was excelling in other areas and the kids who weren’t so good in those areas were ignored.

    Looking back, it’s not a very good way to approach things like physical competence and literacy, which everyone should master.

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  5. i’m in the US, but not up-to-date on the situation, having been in high school in the early 70s. however, at that time in a large school (and school system), the problem i saw with our coaches who were teachers of various subjects was — they were simply appalling teachers! if “coaches” weren’t hired AS COACHES and stuffed into teaching jobs to legitimize their presence, we might have had much better teachers of math, history, languages and social studies than we did! letting some of them “teach” PE is likely to be just as unsatisfactory as in other branches of learning.

    i’m with Dee — a broader assortment of activities should be taught in PE classes to introduce the variety of kids there to enough activites, so that there’s a good chance everybody will like SOMETHING. by not making exercise fun and attractive, aren’t the teachers discouraging activity in the long run?

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  6. Re David’s “I submitted myself to an experiment of rigorously avoiding all bread, cereals, rice, pasta, and refined carbohydrates and replacing that nutritional deficit with healthy meats, fish, fruit, vegetables and fats, including nuts……

    I made the same experiment after complaining to my personal trainer about “heavy legs” during running although I had the conditioning to do the running…after a few weeks of food journaling and some tips from him as he experienced the same problems when he was a professional athlete, I found what works best for me: no carbs 48hrs prior to my running but lots of protein, veggies, fruits & water/unsweetened tea to be well hydrated. Whenever I talk to people about this they think I am crazy and that it cannot be. I tell them, it’s not for everyone but it DOES work for me and since I get the calories in it doesn’t really matter.

    Re the varsity sport/PE topic …. I grew up in Switzerland and we did not have varsity sport or sports team at school at all – just a different culture. We participated in those activities after school in the very late afternoon or evenings. Our PE teachers were teaching “regular” teachers who added the PE … don’t know if this was good or not as some accidents happened based on “not knowing”. However, I believe it was and will always be that active/slim kids get prefered during PE classes no matter if the teacher is a PE teacher or sports coach … it’s the same as a math teacher relates more to a math wiz.

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  7. Team sports in gym class do nothing but reinforce the belief that physical fitness is the business of jocks and bullies. It took me years to realize that I also had a body and could move it NONCOMPETITIVELY for my own enjoyment and benefit.

    Gym class is the worst thing in the world for any fitness for any but the elite jarheads of the world. For the rest of us, it’s a nightmare. Gym class should be about how to be fit and healthy, not how to be violent, mean, and win at all costs, and that’s usually what it’s about, let’s face it. Phys Ed STINKS. Team sports stink; there’s one I like to watch, none I like to play, and all but that one can vanish off the face of the Earth. I’ll walk and hike, thanks. And I didn’t learn a thing about either one in gym class.

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  8. Claudia, I was 110lbs soaking wet in high school and a rail in elementary school, and no, I was not preferred in PE class. Believe me, it’s not just fat kids who get picked last. ANY non-athletic kid is thrown to the wolves, and most of the athletic types were a whole lot more solidly built than me.

    And it’s not the same as math class — I don’t recall beating the hell out of or throwing anything at anyone who couldn’t construct a geometric proof as well as I could.

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  9. Janis is right. The thin, unathletic kids were treated even more poorly than the fat kids in gym class – and they can’t defend themselves as well. The reason I said I was picked “close to last” is because there were two or three skinny/uncoordinated kids who were usually picked after I was. I could do things like throwing a ball a decent distance and hitting a ball with a bat, and I could sprint, even through running more than 600 yards at a stretch was a challenge (I later realized that may have had as much to do with flat feet as with my size). I may have weighed upward of 180 pounds at the time, but there were skinny kids who were worse in gym class than I was. Maybe it was because I was physically active in other areas and outside of school.

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  10. Strangely, the one time I actually enjoyed a gym class — and this was such a unique experience for me that I still recall it vividly over 30 years later — was the one day in my entire school life (one stinking day) when we played floor hockey. I remember how wonderful it felt to realize that I could put the puck anywhere I wanted it, that I was actually good at this one! Two-dimensional aiming and hitting has always been something I was good at, and some of the best offensive players have always been slim, not overly tall guys.

    And throughout twelve YEARS of school, we played it once. Then, back to the hated basketball, which I stunk at and still do — and still hate.

    It’s strange when I think about it now. Maybe if I HAD gone to school in hockey-mad Canada, I might have ended up one of those happy jocks instead of despising team sports for the rest of my life because gym class was nothing but the one sport I couldn’t stand over and over for twelve years of torture.

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  11. I loved gym class and participating in sports during my high school years. I made friends and learned how to deal with different types of people. No one made fun of me in gym class, even if I missed the ball or messed up. My teachers and fellow classmates appreciated my efforts. If you don’t try, then you take yourself out of the game. The people who did get picked on were those who didn’t even try and stood along the wall.

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