Jan. 23, 2014 at 8:17 AM ET
For the person who was always the first kid to get pegged in dodge ball, or the one who was mocked for being ”slow as molasses” in every race, two words likely bring up emotional scars: gym class.
A new study by researchers at Brigham Young University finds that kids who were teased in gym class were less likely to participate in physical activity one year later. And while obese kids were among those who suffered in health-related quality of life long term, even healthy-weight kids who were bullied during physical activity tended to exercise less after the fact.
Previous studies had correlated bullying with decreased physical activity, but “finding that this applies to normal-weight kids also was novel,” says Chad Jensen, a psychology professor at BYU and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
“One reason that normal weight kids may avoid physical activity after being teased is that teasing can be related to physical skills —for example, criticism of sport-specific abilities. Our measure of teasing assessed both appearance/weight related teasing and teasing about physical skills,” says Jensen.
The study’s findings ring true to Dean Metz’s experience as a child growing up in Montville, Conn. Metz says that he was always “chosen last for every team. I couldn’t catch a ball if it had glue on it.”
Metz recalls his gym teachers —who were also the school’s football coaches—would tease and taunt kids with phrases such as “You throw like a girl,” and “Well, someone’s got to take him on their team; there’s nobody left.”
He says the insults took both a physical and emotional toll. “I dreaded gym class, which then only resulted in me becoming more fat and less able.”
Gail Gedan Spencer of Plantation, Fla, vividly recalls a middle school gym teacher telling her in front of the class to “never play volleyball again.”
She was so traumatized that she never attempted volleyball in PE class again. “In fact, after that, I made sure to get a doctor’s note exempting me,” says Spencer, who now blogs about diet and fitness.
In the study, Jensen and researchers looked at about 100 4th and 5th grade students of both genders and varying weights and sizes. The kids were surveyed on everything from being made fun of when playing sports or exercising, not being chosen to be on a team or feeling that others were upset when they were placed on a team, and being called insulting names when doing physical activity. One year later, they were surveyed again.
Overweight kids who were teased reported poorer functional ability across many domains —emotional, social, academic and physical, Jensen said. “If we can help them to have a better perception of their physical and social skills, then physical activity may increase and health-related quality is likely to improve.”
Things changed for Metz when he went away to a summer drama camp and discovered theatrical dancing. That’s when he realized he actually liked moving his body and had significant weight loss. Now, as a 50-year-old physical therapist living in Northern England, he is religious about going to the gym several times a week. But he adds, “I never socialize there or speak to others. I still find it intimidating.”
Regardless of whether a child is humiliated for being overweight or for lack of skills, the study results “suggest that potential negative effects of teasing during physical activity may persist well beyond the teasing experience,” Jensen says. And although additional studies are necessary to determine how persistent these effects may be, “our study provides evidence that teasing’s impact may be long lasting.”
He hopes that the study will raise awareness for educators who will add to anti-bullying programs policies that discourage peer victimization based on physical abilities.
For parents with kids who are teased, one way to help ease the emotional scarring that comes from gym class bullying is knowing how to handle it the next time it happens, says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.
Start by teaching bully-proofing strategies, McCready says.
Role-play with your child how to confidently respond to the bully by looking him straight in the eye, using powerful words, acting unfazed by the provocation and walking away. Learning to respond with assertive words and strong body language removes the payoff of power for the bully and takes your child out of the role of victim, McCready says.
If a parent doesn't feel equipped to teach these strategies, find someone in the community who can help or tap into resources like KidPower.org, she adds.
And how do parents encourage a kid to continue being physically active, even though their gym class memories may have tainted the experience?
McCready suggests avoiding the term “exercise,” and instead make a goal of living an active and healthy lifestyle. “Being active as a family, by taking hikes or riding bikes or walking the dog, can show kids that keeping your body moving can actually be a fun experience.”