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Supersized PE: A Review

Friday, December 04, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders

We all know the stats - 1 in 3 North American children is overweight or obese.  This is obviously of real importance from a public health standpoint, because one-third of our youth are at serious risk for numerous chronic diseases.  But it also has implications for physical education teachers - overweight and obese children have specific needs, and it is the role of the physical education (PE) teacher to meet those needs.  For example, obese children are reported to be less physically active, more sedentary, and have worse motor proficiency than their normal-weight peers (details here).  As we have discussed before, obese kids are also at higher risk for psychological problems, and one highly publicized study even found that obese kids have lower health-related quality of life than cancer patients.

Now obviously these issues not only influence a child's ability to participate in PE, but they are all things that can be helped by a good PE program.  Thus we now have Supersized PE - the first PE textbook focused explicitly on helping teachers meet the needs of overweight and obese kids. The book is broken into 7 short chapters:
  1. Reality Check - What Teachers Can Do Now
  2. A Summary of the "Overweight" Epidemic
  3. Living in an Overweight Body
  4. Top 10 Tips for Teaching Overweight Students
  5. Obesity - A Disability?
  6. The Motivation Factor
  7. Lesson Plans for Achieving the National [American] Standards
When I first picked up the book I had high hopes for it, because I think that people in general, but especially teachers, should be aware of the issues related to overweight and obesity.  Unfortunately, the book doesn't always deliver, and in some places it goes clear off the rails. Here are my thoughts.

The Good:

Some parts of the book are spot on - they mention that teachers should focus on healthy behaviours like physical activity rather than outcomes like body weight, and that teachers should employ a wide range of activities (dodgeball everyday does not make an effective PE course), and promote an inclusive, student-centered environment.  They also mention several times that PE teachers should campaign for healthier lunch-options, less vending machines, and even less high-calorie juice - all great things.  The chapters on obesity as a disability and ways to motivate overweight and obese children were especially informative, and there are lesson plans provided throughout the book.  In general, the book was also a very easy read (it only took a couple days to get through the whole thing), and at 121 pages, it is very approachable.

The Bad:

While the Foreward to the book calls the writing style "folksy", at times it came across as quaint or even naive.  The information is often vague, and the citations are often for textbooks or organizations, rather than actual research articles.  Important issues like the role of body fat distribution, and the fact that body weight and body fat are not completely synonymous, are completely avoided.  Although the authors mention that healthy behaviours are more important than body weight, they never mention that it is likely healthier to be overweight and active than to be normal weight and sedentary.  In fact, the focus is almost entirely on body weight at every turn.  The "Health at Every Size" message is an important one, and one that people need to hear.  This book would have been an ideal place for that message.

The link between obesity and poor motor skills is also a critical message for PE teachers - children with poor motor skills are less likely to engage in physical activity, and more likely to be overweight or obese.  Without those fundamental movement skills, it is unlikely that any child will develop a lifelong love for physical activity.  Unfortunately motor skills receive only a few sentences in the entire book, when they deserve a full chapter, if not a book of their own.

The Ugly

Unfortunately a few parts of the book are problematic to say the least.  For example, after a nice explanation of weight-bias, the authors suggest that university physical education programs should consider mandatory BMI standards for all teacher candidates.  One of the reasons is that "fit looking (e.g. non overweight) individuals are hypothetically more likely to be considered for teaching jobs than significantly overweight candidates".  First off - BMI standards are clearly discriminatory against overweight individuals.  Second - they are giving advice on how to use weight discrimination as a way to improve your chances of getting hired.  That is not ok.  And let's remember that body weight is influenced by a multitude of factors, only some of which are under an individual's control, as well as the importance of physical activity and proper diet regardless of body weight.  They are right to say that PE teachers should lead by example, but are completely wrong about how that should be achieved.

Another cringe-worthy moment is from a lesson plan titled "Obesity Awareness".  In this lesson, students get to feel what it is like to be overweight.  How?  By piling all of their textbooks into their backpacks, and seeing how much harder it is to walk around the schoolyard with that extra weight on their backs.  Really?  I can't believe that anyone ever thought that was a good way to help students learn healthy behaviours or develop a lifelong love for physical activity.

Overall Impression

If we are going to teach our kids how to live healthy, active lifestyles (which we absolutely must do from both an ethical and a public health standpoint) PE is a great place to start.  Both in Canada and the USA, elementary school PE is typically taught by general class-room teachers (as opposed to PE specialists). However well-intentioned, these individuals receive little or no training in how to teach PE, let alone how to cater to children with a wide-array of diverse needs and abilities, which means that this book fills a very important niche.  The authors deserve a lot of credit for opening a dialogue on these important issues, which I think will be the most important contribution of this book.  However, the lack of scientific information, and the at-times questionable advice, will severely limit its effectiveness.

Final Verdict:


Special thanks to Dr Meghann Lloyd for lending me her copy of the book for this review.  Supersized PE can be purchased through and through the National Association for Sport and Physical Education website (the price is much lower on the NASPE website).  For more comprehensive resources for teachers who will be instructing PE for any age, I strongly recommend you check out the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association website.  Although the information is not obesity-specific, they have detailed curriculum resources for all grades.

Have a great weekend!


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6 Response to "Supersized PE: A Review"

  1. Dan Said,

    I think it's fair to say that the worst times in my life were spent in gym class.

    I've always been overweight. My gym teachers (all but one of them) handled me and the other overweight students by completely ignoring us and instead focusing on their favorite athletes. I've never liked sports (partly due to poor motor skills over most of my life, which of course never had a chance to improve), and even if my gym teachers hadn't ignored me, I doubt I would have, but it would have been nice if they would have at least tried to find something for me to do.

    I'd probably still be overweight today, but it's possible I would have developed some good exercise habits with a good gym teacher.
    The only exercise I get is when I make the conscious effort to get out and do it.

    Posted on December 4, 2009 at 8:24 PM

  2. T.Terry Todd Said,

    As a physical educator, dance specialist for over 30 years I totally agree that this is a textbook that should be in every physical educator’s library. With the rise of children's obesity it is more important than ever to advocate, educated and activate healthy living for all through school and home. As the published author of the new children book, “Sweetie’s Healthy Start” the main character, Sweetie, and her very overweight family learn a few lessons of good nutrition , making better food choices and how fitness can be fun.

    Terlene D. Terry-Todd, author
    “Sweetie’s Healthy Start”

    Posted on December 5, 2009 at 5:49 PM

  3. Travis Saunders Said,

    @ Dan,

    Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience. I can only hope that teachers are becoming more knowledgeable of these issues as time goes one.

    The issue of motor skills is an important one, and it's one that quite a few researchers (including my colleague and friend Dr Meghann Lloyd) are pursuing with gusto. Frankly we're not sure how much influence motor skills have on obesity, but the two are certainly related. I think you're right - having good motor skills may not prevent weight gain, but without fundamental movement skills it is almost certain that children will not develop a love of physical activity.

    @ T Terry Todd,

    Thanks for sending the link to your book. I'd love to have a chance to read it and review it on the site. Send me an email if you're interested.


    Posted on December 7, 2009 at 10:17 PM

  4. Dan Said,

    The interesting thing is that it seemed like my motor skills seemed to "kick in" around age 16. I remember tossing a basketball in gym class and watching with disbelief as it went exactly where I aimed it, into the basket. I blamed it on a rough puberty. Do you know if there's anything to that?

    Also, my freshman year of high school was the first time a gym teacher showed me how to throw a baseball. It was amazing how much correct technique mattered.

    Posted on December 7, 2009 at 11:58 PM

  5. Travis Saunders Said,

    @ Dan,

    I am by no means an expert in motor skills, but I think it makes sense that you might have grow into your body a bit after puberty. I have a lot of friends who seemed to gain a lot of coordination once they had finished growing. And having a teacher who taught proper technique certainly would have helped as well. It's amazing how much difference proper instruction can make!


    Posted on December 13, 2009 at 9:07 PM

  6. Anonymous Said,

    I,m a PE teacher in Scotland and have just read the book. I agree it's a start and we as PE professionals have to be acutely aware of thse issues but I agree with the reviewer in many ways. We need first of all to teach kids the value and fun in exercise not necessarily for weight control but for healthy living. Kids need to feel positive about exercise which effects them socially and mentally as well. I have extreme issues with BMI as this does not take into account any of my very fit or healthy athletes and rugby players and this can be very damaging to kids.I have found smiling, encouraging and laughing with my pupils over the years to be the best teaching tools ever. There is an activity for everyone and you don't have to be the best at it, just enjoy it. If we can preach the message of activity, activity , activity to all our kids and perhaps get past some of the negative beliefs some of us have about overweight children in PE class (and remember they are all children with hopes, dreams and feelings) then perhaps we will have a brighter healthier future.

    Posted on May 19, 2010 at 4:37 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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