Physical education for overall health and fitness

Asked to picture physical education at the elementary school, you might envision out-of-breath, sweaty kids running and jumping around, and loud music to muffle their resonant excitement.

Now picture this! Students at Golden Hill Elementary are kicking off the new year with the practice of mindful breathing at the beginning and the end of their physical education classes, to a background of soft instrumental music.

Before and after physical activities in the gym, students are instructed to check their heart rate. Then they lie on their backs, close their eyes to help slow down their thoughts, and begin a guided breathing exercise known as 4-7-8. They take 4 seconds to draw a deep breath into their bellies to slow down their heart rate; try holding it there for 7 seconds; and exhale slowly for the next 8 seconds.

It takes practice, of course, but physical education teachers Ryan Wall and Christine Lopes promise, the more they focus on their breathing, the better they’ll get at it and be able to use it to their benefit in a variety of stressful situations.

“You can use it before a game or a test to help you focus and calm down,” Mr. Wall said. “You can use it anytime you feel those butterflies in your stomach, or even to fall asleep.”

Some students get a little giddy at first and resist giving it a real chance. Not unlike their teacher, Mr. Wall.

“I learned this kind of mindful breathing at a conference from a woman who’s been teaching it to NFL, NBA and MLB players,” Mr. Wall said. “I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical at first, but it works! So we are integrating these breathing exercises in our physical activity to help our students develop skills that can improve their social, emotional health, as well as their overall physical fitness.”

At the end of a fifth-grade class’s first trial of 4-7-8, Mr. Wall asked for first impressions.

“I felt more relaxed,” Angel said. “I felt calmer,” Sherman added.

With increased awareness that personal health is equal parts physical, emotional and social, and with student safety and well-being as a condition for learning and achieving, public schools are finding ways to integrate social emotional learning in all instructional areas and create more supportive school cultures.