Running, fitness
(Photo courtesy Getty Images)

High school P.E. course can lead to 'Fitness for Life'

Running, fitness
(Photo courtesy Getty Images)

How much of what you learned in high school do you still use 20 years later? Probably not a lot.

Black text that reads why this matters
A 20-year longitudinal study shows personalized, concept-based physical education is best for long-term results.

But a study conducted by researchers at Arizona State University found that one thing former students at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix still use is what they learned in their physical education class.

In a paper published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, ASU College of Health Solutions Professor Emeritus Chuck Corbin, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Professor Pamela Kulinna and graduate student Hyeonho Yu detail the results of a 20-year longitudinal study of a unique conceptual physical education (CPE) course at the school.

Unlike traditional education programs, CPE employs the use of a textbook and classroom time spent learning concepts, in addition to time spent on actual physical activities. Students at Mountain Pointe took CPE as freshmen from 1991 to 1992 and were followed years later to see how it affected their physical activity.

Concepts of Fitness

The researchers found that even 20 years after graduation, students who took the CPE class were less likely to be inactive and more likely to be moderately active than when they were in high school, and were less likely to be inactive and more likely to be moderately active than national sample age-equivalent peers.

Furthermore, 56% said they still remembered the course content, 50% said they still use it today and 92% said they currently consider themselves to be well-informed about fitness and physical activity.

This current research is a follow-up of two earlier studies of the students, one as juniors and seniors and one two years after graduation. Both of those studies had similar results.

“We talk a lot now about physical literacy in the health domain,” Corbin said. “The overarching goal of becoming a physically literate person is to be active for life, and we know that a CPE program works in achieving that goal.”

Before asking the Tempe Union High School District school board to approve the program and related research, Corbin had already developed, tested and proven the benefits of the new teaching method at the college level using his textbook “Concepts of Fitness and Wellness.” As a result, CPE is now included as a required or elective course at virtually all colleges and universities.

With that knowledge, the school board agreed to try it out at Mountain Pointe.

Corbin and his team spent the first year developing the curriculum with the school’s faculty. They developed lesson plans based on Corbin’s text, “Fitness for Life,” and the program is still in place today.

Over the years, Corbin also developed a middle school version, with an accompanying textbook, and an elementary school version, which uses videos to teach the concepts in place of a textbook to accommodate for varying reading levels.

Today, Corbin serves as an example of one of ASU’s earliest innovators.

“This was something that was conceptualized, defined and put into action,” he said. “Innovation is a priority of President Crow’s and the CPE innovation is consistent with the goals of the College of Health Solutions.”

ASU Now spoke with Corbin to learn more about CPE and the results of the 20-year longitudinal study.

headshot of Chuck Corbin wearing a gold polo with a Sparky the Sun Devil logo
Chuck Corbin

Question: What is conceptual physical education, and how is it different from other methods of teaching physical education?

Answer: With CPE, you also spend time in the classroom and use a textbook to teach important concepts and self-management skills, like how to assess your own health, how to set goals, how to overcome behavioral barriers, how to find social support, stay active, eat healthy, etc. The classroom session is designed to teach important principles so that when students adopt healthy behaviors, they have a basis for understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing. From the beginning I used the HELP philosophy: Health for Everyone for a Lifetime in a Personal way. The philosophy suggests that health is personal, it’s for everyone and it’s for the rest of your life. In addition to learning concepts and self-management skills, you plan your own personal program. What you do might be quite different from what another person does. If you don’t like an activity, the idea is to help find something you do like and figure out how to exercise properly so that you can carry it into your adult life.

Q: When did you create CPE and why did you do it?

A: I started promoting CPE in the 1960s. After initial rejection by publishers, the first edition of my college text was published more than 50 years ago in 1968. In those days we didn’t know as much as we do now about physical activity and health. If a person had a heart attack, a doctor would prescribe them several months of bed rest. Now we know you need to get up and start exercising. So we started to gain a new perspective on the importance of exercise and nutrition. In those days, everybody in college took a required P.E. course, but a lot of people — especially those coming back from WWII or the Korean War — didn’t see the need to play volleyball or other sports. So I created conceptual physical education, which uses a health-based approach, not necessarily a skills-based approach. The typical idea of physical education is playing dodgeball or some other sport for an hour. That works for physically-skilled people but not necessarily the average person.

Q: How has your research changed the way we teach PE to youth?

A: The CPE innovation at the college level is now fully implemented. Almost all colleges have a required or elective course in this kind of physical education. Recent research shows that almost one-third of high schools now have some type of CPE. This represents a big change in physical education programming. Research by my ASU colleague, Bob Pangrazi, also has had an impact on youth fitness testing. In elementary schools, fitness tests are health-based now. In the early days, they were more skills-related tests, like how high you could jump. Tests now are based on things like cardiorespiratory endurance (heart health), strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and healthy body composition. More and more, schools are adopting CPE programs and health-related fitness testing, and we now have evidence that shows it’s effective. And if parents don’t have these kinds of programs at their children’s school, they should go to the school board and request them, because they work.

Q: Does CPE work for adults?

A: Sure. This approach will work no matter how old you are. In my career, over the last 40 to 50 years, I’ve keynoted 44 different state and health conventions, and I’ve given a lot of talks to older people, and I tell them it’s never too late: You can start physical activity at any age and get health benefits. I focus on helping them set reasonable goals because a lot of the time when people begin physical activity, especially if they’re older, they expect too much. As a result, they don’t meet their goals and they give up.

Q: What do you hope current and future researchers in this field take away from the study?

A: How many studies have there been of educational innovations in general that followed students for 20 years to see if the program worked? And how many of the programs that are funded at the federal level with millions of dollars are still around 20 years later? We didn’t have any money for this program; we did it on our own because we saw that it worked. The teachers at Mountain Pointe were committed to it and still do it today. The College of Health Solutions is all about solving health problems. We created an innovative program that works and that’s a solution to a current health issues. We should do what we can to use that solution with as many people as possible.

Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

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