I was 15 years old, staring down at an algebra test I had gotten back moments earlier. It was covered in red marks, telling me that I had failed to correctly utilize the quadratic formula, and that my calculator-less computational skills were not up to par. I was devastated — embarrassed that I had failed so miserably at something that was expected of me.

Thankfully I made a full recovery, and the best part is that after high school, I never had to look at another complicated math problem again. Contrary to what many teachers implied, algebra and calculus are not essential to everyone’s daily life. Neither is reciting the history of the antebellum south, or memorizing a long list of amino acids. For some people, yes, but not all.

All of us do, however, have a very real need for an education in health and fitness. Whether one is a brain surgeon, musician, or financial analyst, they have a body to take care of. Without knowing how to eat right and exercise, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a plethora of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Why is it then that physical education is treated like a second class part of a child’s education?

What’s The Big Deal?

The obesity epidemic in the U.S. is not news. As a country, we’ve been struggling with our weight for years, and we’ve reached the point where an entire third of our population is considered obese. The most harrowing part is that many of these people are children — childhood obesity has more than doubled in the last 30 years, and obesity in adolescents has quadrupled. Most of the time children are not going to fast food restaurants and buying themselves food, which means that their condition is a result of their environment, their parenting, and their education.

Children spend the majority of their day in school, and it has an undeniable effect on their health. In terms of physical education, the benefits have been demonstrated many times over. In perhaps the most obvious advantage, longer phys ed classes have been shown to reduce the likelihood that a young child will become obese. Not only do the classes give kids a workout during the day, but they expose them to activities and sports that may spark an interest in the child.

The benefits continue even into the long term.

“Students need to be taught how to maintain health in order to strive as adults in the world,” Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified pediatrician and dermatologist, and contributor to the Los Angeles Pediatric Society Newsletter, told Medical Daily in an email. “Schools can provide a safe, supportive environment to learn and practice these healthy habits and lay the groundwork for maintaining a healthy lifestyle into adulthood.”

Physical education, contrary to the beliefs of many, does not harm students by pulling them away from their academics. Often called a waste of time by more academically oriented students and parents, P.E. holds hidden benefits for the brain. Research shows that children who exercise actually get better grades in school, and one study found that kids getting cardiorespiratory exercise had bigger hippocampi, the brain structure associated with both short and long-term memory.

Even other teachers should be grateful kids are getting to the gym during the day, according to Harold Kohl, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas.

“What’s in it for the educators is better academic performance,” he told the Las Vegas Review. “That’s kind of the Holy Grail on this deal, and the evidence is getting pretty strong…mental health benefits, physical health benefits, skeletal health benefits, metabolic benefits.”

There really isn’t much wiggle room for one to dispute the value of physical education, so why is it still a struggle to get kids the classes they need?

An Afterthought, Not A Priority

As I mentioned, many of the subjects taught in schools become irrelevant to kids later in life. They’re all taken seriously though, accepted as an essential part of being an “educated” person. A child’s physical education is often downplayed, pushed aside, or delegitimized through various avenues, the most common of which are defunding and lack of grading.

Currently, there are no federal regulations addressing physical education in schools. The No Child Left Behind Act addressed standardized testing for academic disciplines, and the only thing it really ended up leaving behind was fitness education. Since it’s left up to individual states to decide what its requirements are, many schools have cut funding for phys ed classes in favor of new technology or materials for other courses.

As a result, schools have inadequate programs, and some have none at all. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly half of the high school students surveyed said they had no physical education classes in an average week. In states that allow schools to opt out of physical education, the class becomes optional in the eyes of kids, leading to health and fitness being seen as optional as well.

Some states do require an adequate level of phys ed classes, but this doesn’t mean the program is perfect. The grading systems for many schools are quite standard; think of a report card that lists a number or letter grade for every class. One class often gets left out — surprise, it’s phys ed again.

“There should be formal grading in physical education, just like there is in other core subjects,” Jayne Greenberg, district director of physical education and health literacy for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, told Parents magazine.

She believes phys ed should be graded based on participation, skill level, and written tests, just like everything else.

“Parents need an honest assessment of their child’s abilities — just like they’re getting in math and reading—so they know what needs improvement,” she said.

The grading isn’t so important in the sense of a child knowing whether they’re a racketball all-star or not. It’s important because grades matter to kids. They learn subjects not always because they want to, but because they’re scared of failing a test or class. If the same mentality were applied to phys ed, kids would be forced to actually learn about their health and fitness, rather than just go through the motions.

There has been an outcry from parents over the idea — what if my child simply isn’t good at sports? Well, some kids aren’t good at reading or math or science, but by exercising their brain through practice and homework, they can learn to get through it. Exercising the body isn't any different.

“Quality physical education programs promote better self-esteem for students,” Virginia Chillari, a physical education teacher from Winslow Township School, N.J., told Medical Daily in an email. “A student who may not excel in the classroom can have an alternative outlet to shine and be recognized in a positive way.”

Of course, students with physical disabilities would be provided alternative ways to make their grade, just as cognitive or learning disabilities are taken into consideration in academic classes.

“It is important to note that physical education teachers can teach all learners using many different styles,” Chillari said. “We use visual concepts through demonstration, auditory concepts through music and language, and physical concepts through participation.”

Chillari also noted that grading in classes helps support teachers as well as students, reinforcing that what they do is “legitimate.”

It’s time for everyone to recognize just that, and accept that physical education is an important, if not the most important component of a child’s education. Taking care of the body is not optional in life, so it shouldn’t be optional during school. Besides, if we’re too busy getting treatment for heart disease or struggling with obesity, how are we supposed to find time to use that quadratic formula?