Emory Report
December 10, 2007
Volume 60, Number 14

Emory Report homepage  

December 10, 2007
P.E. core component of an optimal education

Charles Raison is an assistant professor in the Mind-Body Program, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He serves as clinical director of Mind-Body Program and co-director of the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies.

It took me a while to get there, but it is no accident that I ended up spending much of my professional life studying links between mental and physical well-being in Emory freshman students. We are all drawn to the things that have impacted our own lives, and my freshman year in college left an enduring imprint on me.

I had crafted my high school identity around being a top student from a tiny farm town where the average graduating senior read at less than sixth-grade level. Suddenly tossed in with the rich, powerful and brilliant at an elite university, it took less than a couple of weeks to separate me from the grandiose self-assessment that had kept me afloat back home. With the loss of that illusion I sunk into depression and spent much of that year sleeping through class, sleeping all afternoon and moving across the landscape like a frightened ghost. Eventually, I recovered. But the experience soured me on college.

I often wish I could go back and apply what I know now to what I needed then. One of the lessons that I would most insist upon for my adolescent self would be to engage in a program of regular exercise, preferably in the (self-selected) company of others.

Why? Because data have been piling up for over a decade now showing that regular exercise improves mood if you are down and works as an antidepressant if you are depressed. Moreover, given that young adults are at increased risk for adverse reactions to antidepressants, exercise is especially relevant for people like the student I used to be. Of course, such an exercise program wouldn’t have saved me from all that freshman psychosocial stress — or would it have?

Remarkably, recent studies suggest that exercise “gets you in shape” not just in terms of physical endurance, but also in terms of how you handle psychological stress. Indeed, people who exercise regularly can run further than those who don’t, but they also show reductions in the types of deleterious emotional responses to psychological stress that set people up for depression, as well as the types of deleterious physical responses to stress that promote the development of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

It is with these considerations in mind that I want to voice concern over a plan currently being considered by Emory College that seeks to reduce general education requirements, in part, by cutting the current undergraduate P.E. requirement. I think doing this will vitiate a program at Emory that, rather than being assailed, should be celebrated as an important potential resource in the University’s stated — and strategic initiative-backed — commitment to preventive health. Does it not seem disingenuous for the University to invest millions in extending the concept of education to include optimizing life-long health, while at the same time cutting a program that is enacting that goal now in the most tangible and important way possible?

One argument advanced in favor of gutting the P.E. requirement seems to me to be especially spurious, despite seeming reasonable enough on the surface: that P.E. should be an elective opportunity instead of a requirement. Why? Because — the argument goes — students would exercise without the requirement, so nothing would be lost. Really? If it was so easy to adopt a regular health-promoting exercise program most adults would be doing it, because, after all, we all know how crucial exercise is to health.

The fact that this is not the case highlights how important it is that we build exposure to physical education into the curriculum early enough in life for good habits established by mandate to take root and flower later as activities embraced by free choice. Moreover, as I know from my own difficult experience, it is precisely the students whose mental and physical health would be most likely to benefit from exposure to P.E. who are often least able to access an exercise program through their own volition.

As a result of my studies, I have worked with approximately 150 Emory freshmen over the last two years. One of the bittersweet aspects of this experience has been the realization that I was far from alone in struggling with depression during my first year of college.

We recruit a cross-section of freshmen, and yet in some semesters up to 30 percent of our students have depressive symptoms significant enough that they would qualify for entry into an antidepressant drug trial. And many students who are not struggling with clinical depression nonetheless show signs of sadness, anxiety and insecurity that make my heart ache, not only for them, but for the freshman I once was.

On the other hand, because we conduct our research in collaboration with the Department of Health, Physical Education and Dance I have had the chance to repeatedly see a potent antidote to this situation in action. You can see it, too. Just take a walk through the Woodruff Physical Education Center and observe the activities and demeanors of the students inside. You will see young people full of life, full of confidence, talking, laughing, working together in teams or conquering physical challenges on the solitude of the rock wall or in the silence of the pool water. If you could juxtapose this vision with a snapshot of the more representative students we see in our study, you, like me, would be powerfully converted to the notion that physical exercise holds almost unlimited potential to improve the lives of college students.

It is my sincere hope that the college elects to continue being a standard bearer among its peers in holding that physical education is a core, indeed elemental, component of an optimal education for students destined to tackle the unknowable stresses and challenges of the 21st century.