The PE Teacher’s Guide to Teaching Health

Health should be a stand-alone subject, but what if you teach at a school where it’s not?


Health is slowly gaining more attention in the education world. As focus shifts to the “whole” child, school districts are realizing that fitting physical, mental, social, and emotional health into one quarter of the year isn’t going to work. If we’re going to cover health the right way, we’re going to need more time.

Some independent schools are already adopting a more comprehensive health program, but for many other schools, these changes get stuck in the planning stages and take “forever” to implement. And in the meantime, we’re missing valuable opportunities to prepare our students for the health concerns that they will inevitably face as they navigate through their teen years and into young adulthood.

In smaller schools especially, health classes are often assigned to PE teachers who either don’t want to teach it, aren’t comfortable with the subject matter, or more commonly, don’t have time to prepare for and assess two separate sets of standards. The situation can be challenging for the teacher and does a potential disservice to the students ... but it doesn’t have to be that way.

For the non-health teacher tasked with teaching health, here are some tips for making the most of the situation:

1. Let others do the planning for you.

If lack of time is the issue, avoid falling back to old textbooks and worksheets, but don’t reinvent the wheel either. There are plenty of passionate health teachers out there who are more than happy to share lessons, project ideas, and resources. Ask them for ideas and collaborate.

To connect with health teachers around the world, jump on Twitter and follow the #HealthEd and #PhysEd hashtags. Twitter may seem like a giant time-suck, but it actually helps you customize and streamline your news intake. Plus, you’ll have a range of free professional development resources at your disposal. For tips on how to get started, check out The Teacher’s Guide to Twitter.

And for a bank of ready-to-go project ideas and unit plans, you can access an archive of my old posts right here on Choices.

2. Know that it’s possible to squeeze physical activity into nearly every lesson.

Throughout my work, I’ve spoken with many different PE/health teachers who have many different ways of incorporating health into their PE classes. The most effective models, however, incorporate some physical activity into every health lesson.

When health is tacked onto PE, students can grow to resent it. If they look forward to PE as a time to run around and let off some steam, having to sit in a classroom can make them view health in a negative light.

If class blocks are shorter, then an every-other-day rotation of health and PE might work best. Conducting a health lesson only once per week won’t give you enough time to gain momentum on any projects, and lumping all of the health material together for several weeks straight can create a frustrated classroom.

To get the kids up and moving on a regular basis, incorporate brain breaks, have them work in groups to create fitness videos, or discuss TED talks and articles while taking long walks around the school property or neighborhood.

If you’re lucky enough to have 90-minute blocks, check out this model of the Fit Lit program one school is using. This version combines Language Arts with PE to improve brain function and learning, but the strategies can easily be applied to a health/PE split.

3. Make the classroom look less like a prison cell. 

When PE teachers teach health, it’s often done in a shared space that they don't inhabit for very long. Without one teacher ever taking ownership of the room, walls often remain bare and grim. 

Don't wait for another teacher to take the reigns; take initiative and work together with your students to create a “Wellness Studio.” Quick and easy changes like swapping the chairs with yoga balls and having the kids make positive posters to hang on the walls will foster a healthy, inviting environment that everyone’s excited to be in.

For more ideas on weaving health into your PE program, see what they’re doing with the new K-8 HPE standards in Ontario, Canada. And be sure to check out Choices guide to the best online resources for teen health.