The strange similarity of gyms and schools

The strange similarity of gyms and schools

Many of us made physical fitness resolutions at the start of the year. If you’re like me, you may do this with some regularity. I always chuckle when my exercise class is packed in January and by March it’s noticeably quiet.

Why do we make fitness resolutions and go to gyms, YMCAs, or other exercise venues? Generally, it’s because we know our bodies need movement, our muscles need challenge, and we feel better after completing a decent workout. You may also feel like you’ve earned a special beverage or food treat, which you then consume without guilt.

Thinking about this in light of the educational challenges our nation faces caused me to seek similarities. The first is that building strength requires exertion. We must set our minds to anticipate challenges. We’re cool with this in the gym, but we have learned it’s not cool in an educational setting.

The second is that in order for our muscles to gain strength, they need to be stressed and challenged, then rested. Not rested for prolonged periods because atrophy sets in with alarming speed, especially as we continue to age. Again, cool in the gym, not so at school.

The third similarity is the recognition that stressed muscles are damaged in small ways in order to spur healing and develop capability to bear greater stress. There is no need to fear this mini destruction, as it serves a role in creating better health. Good in the gym, dangerous on campus?

The fourth is that safety is important. Led by athletic trainers or exercise experts who understand physiology, we learn proper technique and how to listen when our bodies say, “Stop. No kidding.” This is a distinctly different message from, “Stop. I don’t wanna do this anymore.” Building strength requires repetition, stamina, and the ability to suffer a reasonable amount of discomfort. In a gym, this is physiological. We don’t go to protect ourselves from the demands of exertion. We know we’ll be better for it. On campus, this is psychological and therefore unsafe. Hmm.

The fifth similarity is how incredible it feels to be done with an especially demanding workout! And how proud we feel when we recognize the progress we have made. Bodies start looking more toned and function with greater ease. That’s what the gym does. What does a classroom do?

The work done in a classroom is of far greater importance than the work done in a gym. Our brains—and yes, emotions—need to be systematically challenged in small ways, granted time to heal after discomfort, allowed to rest and assimilate new learning, then encouraged to press forward with new discovery. To insist that it should be intellectually or emotionally free from discomfort is to deny the capability of the human entity to experience distress and grow from it.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that true danger in a classroom be treated cavalierly as simply a feature of today’s reality. What I am advocating is for a gradual and continual process of stimulation, challenge, reflection, and appreciation that can be just as rewarding as the work we do in a gym.

As we begin to discover and appreciate the incredible elasticity of our minds, we experience the joy of pushing them in new ways. We also begin to love the people who urge us into new realms, supporting us in our shaky moments, encouraging us to hang tight, and expressing the belief that we will be better on the other side of this discomfort.

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