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Common Misconceptions about Children's Health, Activity and Fitness

This is an excerpt from Promoting Active Lifestyles in Schools With Web Resource by Jo Harris & Lorraine Cale.

Studies over a number of decades and from across the world have shown that children hold misconceptions and misunderstandings about health, activity and fitness (Brusseau, Kulinna, & Cothran, 2011; Burrows & Wright, 2004; Burrows, Wright, & Jungersen-Smith, 2002; Dixey, Sahota, Atwal, & Turner, 2001; Harris, 1993, 1994; Harris, Cale, Duncombe, & Musson, 2016; Keating et al., 2009; Merkle & Treagust, 1993; O'Shea & Beausoleil, 2012; Placek et al., 2001; Powell & Fitzpatrick, 2015; Stewart & Mitchell, 2003). For example, children tend to consider health almost exclusively in a physical or corporeal sense (predominantly in terms of body shape and size) and view food and exercise as the main moderators of health. They also tend to describe health from a negative perspective, stating what they should avoiddoing in order to stay healthy (e.g., eating sugary or fatty foods, being sedentary for long periods) rather than what they should do. These findings suggest that children tend to have a somewhat narrow and negative perspective on what it means to be healthy.


These studies also provide evidence of worrying gaps, and some confusion, in young people's knowledge and understanding of health, fitness and physical activity. For example, many young people

  • think that fitness is about being thin and looking good,
  • think that exercise must be hard in order to be good,
  • fail to make informed links between exercise or energy expenditure and being overweight or obese and
  • have only a superficial understanding of the relationship between health and exercise.


It has been suggested that young people's inadequate or inaccurate understandings of health, fitness and physical activity may result from how these subjects are taught in schools and addressed in popular culture (Burrows & Wright, 2004; Burrows et al., 2002; Lee & Macdonald, 2009, 2010). This may be true, for instance, of approaches steeped in ‘healthism' discourse, which is based on the notion that health can be achieved ‘unproblematically through individual effort and discipline, directed mainly at regulating the size and shape of the body' (Crawford, cited in Kirk and Colquhoun, 1989, p. 419). Such approaches may lead young people to develop reductive, limited and limiting conceptualisations of health, fitness and physical activity (Burrows, 2008; Burrows & Wright, 2004; Burrows et al., 2002; Burrows, Wright, & McCormack, 2009; Harris et al., 2016; Lee & Macdonald, 2009, 2010). Moreover, young people's engagement with healthism discourses may be facilitated by well-meaning but inadequately prepared teachers who themselves hold narrow, reductive views of health, fitness and physical activity (Harris et al., 2016; Lee & Macdonald, 2009, 2010). Such cases may result in schools falling well short of their potential to promote healthy, active lifestyles.


This danger implies an urgent need to increase the breadth, depth and relevance of young people's learning about health in schools. Specifically, a coordinated whole-school approach to teaching health would help young people connect learning across a range of subjects. In addition, we can adopt teaching approaches that help pupils relate their learning to themselves and their everyday lives. In PE, in particular, learning should challenge the narrow focus, misunderstandings and misconceptions that many young people hold concerning health, fitness and physical activity. Meeting this goal is likely to require us to develop alternative approaches, both in initial teacher education and in professional development related to PE-for-health pedagogies. Approaches that address pupils' misunderstandings and misconceptions are presented in parts 2 and 3 of this book. You can also visit the web resource for a printable handout titled Debunking Myths and Misconceptions About Children's Health, Activity and Fitness.