Stinky gym uniforms, awkward locker room conversations, and getting hit in the head with a basketball. These are just a few of the horrid memories I have of high school PE. Yeah, not exactly how I wanted to spend my freshman year of high school.
So imagine my face when I saw the mandatory PE requirement at MIT. I did not want to relive high school PE, where I would finish my first lap around the track and everyone else would be on their fifth. I did not want to embarrassingly try to play softball and strike out again.
But now, as I try to get through my first semester at MIT, I could not be more thankful for my PE classes.
MIT is filled with lectures, psets, and a lot of time spent sitting. Combine this with large amounts of unhealthy free food lying around, stress eating, and short walks to Toscanini’s, and you produce the perfect freshman 15. Luckily, PE classes decrease the chances of this happening, and provide mental health benefits too.
Within the first ten minutes of both my first quarter PE class, indoor soccer, and my current PE, kickboxing, I was already a hot mess. Sweat poured from body and I unfortunately looked like I had just ran a marathon. A lot of the sweat came from the fact that I was super out of shape, but at least 5 percent of it came from the fact that I was forced to move.
On the first day of indoor soccer, I didn’t expect much. It was soccer, the sport of kicking a ball. How hard could it be? But before we even got to playing, we had to do warmups.
OK, I thought. This was going exactly how I expected it to because I knew I could handle warmups. I mean what are warmups but just pretending to stretch my legs?
When my PE instructor started going over our actual “warmups,” though, my jaw almost dropped. He wanted us to run across the floor, and kick our feet as high as they could go while walking. I could already hear my legs groaning.
Then the self-consciousness hit in. As we started doing our warmups, I realized that everyone was at least two steps ahead of me. Was I really that out of shape? Even though my body was ready for a nap after warmups, my classmates seemed to have more energy than ever. I realized how fortunate it was that PE was graded on participation, not on performance.
About halfway through, we started playing games. This was when the real sweat broke out. While I did very little to contribute to the team, I did contribute significantly to my health — by constantly running up and down the court after a ball that never quite seemed to go wherever I wanted it to go.
PE class provided a justification for Saturday morning tater tots. That extra sugar cookie. Those bowls of French fries. But to eat all of those things, I needed to go to the next level: kickboxing.
Whenever I tell someone that I am in kickboxing, they usually assume it means that there are punching bags, boxing gloves, and lots of physical contact — especially the kind that involves injuring others. That thankfully isn’t the case, since I probably would have ended up with a black eye by now if so. Instead, the class consists of an intense cardio/aerobic workout.
Kickboxing is a class that begins right away. All of a sudden, loud music starts to play and you are supposed to watch the teacher at the front of the room perform “moves” that more often than not resemble hilarious dance moves from the ’90s. I always try to stand in the back so that I can’t look at myself in the giant mirror at the room; I can’t even fathom how absurd I look jumping from squats to lunges.
When kickboxing starts, it doesn’t stop. Not only is there constant music, but there is always some sort of exercise going on. Our instructor usually tells us to get water whenever we need it, but before I dash to my water bottle, I look around. I don’t want to be the only person out of breath after one set of jumping and punching. Luckily, my classmates are more fearless than I am and always get water, sometimes even before the class has even begun.
Not only is the workout so good from kickboxing that I’m comfortable walking in shorts afterwards when it’s 45 degrees outside, it is also quite entertaining. Many of our exercies look eerily similar to classic old school dance moves, like the lawn mower. Who knew that I’d get to exercise and perfect ’90s dance routines for the next party in a kickboxing class?
PE classes may be great for my physical health, but there is definitely a mental component too. I, along with the rest of MIT, spend most of my day sitting. The sitting can be productive, but it can also be quite stressful. When I sit, it usually means I’m trying to figure out a hard 8.01 problem or think about all of the psets I didn’t do this past weekend.
I’ve heard a thousands times (mostly from an overly concerned mother who tries to get me to lose weight) that working out is good for mental health. This used to sound like one of those random unfounded pieces of advice, but not anymore. I honestly have never felt the effects of intense exercise until I started running up and down soccer courts and perfecting my uppercut punch in PE classes this year. Don’t get me wrong, there is still some stress that goes along with PE — like the fact that I get tired after five minutes of working out or that the PE registration system resembles the Hunger Games. But the beautiful thing is that everything else in my life is set aside for 40 minutes. No tests, no psets, no essays. Just working out.
Now, if you are looking for a way to lose 30 pounds or de-stress your entire life, I can’t promise that the GIR PE classes will do it for you. It is true that having another part of your day scheduled, when the lives of MIT students are already bursting at the seams with commitments, isn’t fun either.
But I can promise that it’s worth it. So, take a PE class. Not only is it a graduation requirement, but it is something that provides benefits beyond your physical health. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy eating that extra chocolate chip cookie and not feeling guilty about it? I know I do.
Michal Shlapentokh-Rothman is a member of the Class of 2019.