How Physical Education Helps Self-Esteem

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the importance of physical education. We'll examine how physical education can build self-esteem in students and how this impacts their academic performance in the classroom.

What Is Self-Esteem?

Picture getting home from a rough day at work. The meeting you were supposed to run turned into a disaster, and people weren't very happy with your performance. The reports you sent out had tons of errors, and even though you normally are pretty successful at work, today you feel totally down. As a healthy adult, you know that exercise can improve your mood. You decide to meet up with your running club and go for a jog. You channel all your frustration into the run and end up finishing with a faster pace than normal. With this accomplishment comes feelings of happiness, competence, and self-worth called self-esteem.

Although our students aren't working in an office and may not be members of a running club, they have incredibly stressful lives balancing home, work and school life, all while developing their identity. Having a high self-esteem is an important part of adolescent development. When teens have low self-esteem, they are at greater risk for mental health disorders, such as anxiety, eating disorders and depression. Low self-esteem can also lead to a cascading effect of poor choices, including teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol use.

Physical Education

So, how do we increase self-esteem? There are many ways, including positive reinforcement, praise, empathy, and understanding. One solution, although incredibly effective, has fallen by the wayside in recent years: physical education. Physical education is often considered an elective course, and students don't always take it seriously. The physical activity that comes from this class, however, can have strong impacts on student self-esteem.

Although there are lots of positive effects of regularly scheduled exercise, today we're going to look at three ways that physical education can help improve student self-esteem: fostering feelings of competency, increasing skills surrounding teamwork, and improving physiology and health.


One of the main components of self-esteem is a sense of competency, or the belief that we can be successful at our endeavors. For many students, school is difficult and stressful, particularly for students with learning disabilities, students behind grade level, or English language learners. Physical education not only provides a break from this arduous work, but is also a place to excel. To examine how this works, let's look at a scenario.

Daekwon has a specific learning disability in reading. He struggles to focus in class, and reading even a paragraph involves a lot of cognitive effort. He's tired after class, usually feels pretty down, and sometimes imagines he'll never get better at reading. But, after reading class, Daekwon has gym. Daekwon has been playing basketball in his neighborhood for years. He knows the footwork, the jumps, and exactly how to throw the ball. Here, he feels like he can do anything.

Physical education provides a sense of competency during the school day for some students.

Not only does Daekwon feel successful, but he also helps students that are still learning and don't have as much competency in the sport. This creates a positive feedback loop where Daekwon feels more and more self-worth from helping others, causing other students to feel more confident as well.

The gains from physical education don't stop at the gym though. Research has shown that consistent physical activity actually improves cognitive function and academic gains. So, over time with regular activity, reading should become a little easier for Daekwon, providing a sense of competency in his academic classes as well, leading to increased self-esteem.


This brings us to an important part of physical education, teamwork. During teamwork, students must learn to combine their skills to meet a goal. Teamwork is present in every career, and learning to work with others is an essential skill. Like we saw in our example, Daekwon uses his talent to help other students. Some students might feel inadequate at sports, or even clumsy. By working as a team, some students have a chance to become teachers, and others, who are struggling, get help to become better at the activity.

Teamwork in physical education fosters self-esteem.

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