8 Ways Gym Class Used to Be So Much Worse

If you ever had to endure the Presidential Fitness Test, you know that kids today have it easy.
If you ever had to endure the Presidential Fitness Test, you know that kids today have it easy. / Shutterstock/Nana_Studio (stack of photos); Charles Fenno Jacobs/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (women)

To all my fellow nerds who hated (or are still suffering through) gym class: Take heart. It used to be much worse. Physical education in centuries past was sadistic, sexist, and just plain bizarre. Be grateful you never had to experience these eight P.E. nightmares.

1. Dodgeball was more extreme.

Let’s start with gym class’s stereotypical nightmare for dweebs: Dodgeball. Or, as it was sometimes called, Murderball or Killerball. Many schools today have banned dodgeball (much to the chagrin of manly sportswriters), or else use softer, more pillowy dodgeballs in place of the welt-leaving rubber missiles in the ‘80s.

But even the dodgeball of my youth was gentle compared to earlier versions. A 1922 physical education guide—put out by Junior R.O.T.C.—describes a version of dodgeball where a team stands in a circle and the other team congregates in the middle. The outer team then wallops the inner team with medicine balls. Yes, medicine balls—those heavy leather-bound boulders that, at that time, weighed 7 to 12 pounds. (The game was slightly different in another way, too: The inner team and outer team switched places to see who could knock down the opposing team fastest.)

Somehow, that’s better than another activity the manual recommends on the same page, a “game” called “Swat to Right.” This consists of students smacking each other with a swatter and then running in a circle. Really, that’s the entire game.

2. Gym class was pretty sexist.

Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

As with most things in the past, gym class was appallingly sexist. If girls were allowed to exercise at all, they had severe restrictions. Consider the “exercises” suggested by the 1856 book Physiology and Calisthenics for Students and Families. They include teaching girls how to curtsy to their partner after they perform a stretch together, also how to properly put their hand in the crook of a boy’s elbow. Such a healthy workout! That’s not to mention the often unwieldy full-coverage outfits girls had to wear while exercising. The exercise outfit above dates to around 1893 and was actually considered progressive because it was less constricting than others. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it: “The middy style blouse and bloomers allowed movement and fully concealed the female figure, while the balls on the end of the sash could be used as props in calisthenics.”

3. Gym class in Ancient Sparta was all about survival.

Go ahead and thank Ares you didn’t have to endure physical education class in ancient Sparta. In the warmongering Greek city-state, boys attended a program called “agoge.” The first stage, for ages 7 to around 13, was like a five-year-long combination of basic training, frat hazing, and a Bear Grylls show. Students were provided little clothing, had to make their own beds (as in actually build them from reeds), and were kept half-starved. Stealing food was encouraged, though if you got caught you would be beaten and flogged for your lack of skill.

4. You had to square dance.

Square dancing has been a staple of American gym classes in decades, starting in the 1920s and lasting till the 1980s. And what, you ask, is the problem with that, aside from mild dorkiness? Well, the push to teach square dancing in gym was borne from racism and anti-Semitism. Really. As this fascinating Quartz article details, Henry Ford, a notorious racist and anti-Semite, was worried about the evil effects of jazz, which he saw as music engineered by Jewish and Black people to corrupt America and drive people to sex and liquor. He promoted square dancing as the wholesome savior, and campaigned to get it included in P.E. classes. According to the article, by 1928, nearly half of American schools were teaching square dancing and “other forms of old-fashioned dancing to students.”

5. Kids had to endure the Presidential Fitness Test.

In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was concerned about studies showing American youths were falling behind in physical fitness—a concern shared by John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1965, Johnson announced the creation of the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards Program (which incorporated the work of all three presidents), stating that “It is essential that our young people develop their physical capabilities as well as their mental skills. Sports and other forms of active play promote good health and help provide our country with sturdy young citizens equal to the challenges of the future.”

According to Vox, detractors charged that the test was better suited to military training than to gauging the fitness of youth. By the time President Obama replaced the test with the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, students had to do pull-ups, curl-ups, an endurance run, and a dreaded test of flexibility known as the V-sit and Reach.

And they had to do it all in front of their peers and suffer adolescent judgment. “The test was totally backwards,” a P.E. teacher told NPR in 2014. “We knew who was going to be last, and we were embarrassing them. We were pointing out their weakness.”

6. Rope climbing was a thing.

If you’re over 40, you might remember climbing ropes that hung from the gym ceiling, sometimes as high as 30 feet. The activity, which has mostly been abolished, was inducted in 2013 into Physical Education Hall of Shame, which called it a “perfect storm” of regrettable features, including “low participation rates, the element of danger, the ‘made for a lawsuit’ thin mat under the rope, the inattentive spotter, the rope burns on the hands and legs, and the grand spectacle of one student attempting to climb while the rest of the class sits and watches.” (The Hall of Shame was an annual feature published by the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Other entrants include Red Rover and, of course, Dodgeball).

7. One gym program was basically Crossfit for kids.

As Mental Floss’s own Jake Rossen writes, the gym program at one California school in the 1960s was “not so much famous as it was notorious: It frequently asked more of students than of prospects entering the Naval Academy.”

The La Sierra High School program required students to do a high-intensity circuit of push-ups, pull-ups, and an obstacle course. At the basic level, students were doing, among other feats, six pull-ups. The Marine Corps physical only requires three pull-ups. The program became more controversial as the ‘60s got more hippieish. As the director of a documentary on the program told Mental Floss, “People started showing up not dressed for P.E. as a form of protest.”

8. Finally, there was the great posture scandal.

One of the oddest and most disturbing chapters of physical education was the obsession with posture in elite colleges in the 1950s and 1960s. Incoming freshmen at Harvard, Yale, and other top schools were required to be photographed. And these were not ordinary photos; they were nude photos, with pins stuck to various parts of their body. If the students were judged to have poor posture, they were sent to remedial posture training classes.

But it gets weirder. It seems the main purpose of the photos was to provide research for a pseudo-scientific study of how body types are correlated to personality. The practice was exposed in a 1995 New York Times article, which lists many of those subjected to the photos, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Meryl Streep, and George H.W. Bush. Many of the photos have been destroyed, but some still occasionally appear online.