physical education and training, organized instruction in motor activities that contribute to the physical growth, health, and body image of the individual. The historical roots of physical education go back as far as the ancient Chinese (c.2500 B.C.), who had a well-developed system of exercise and physical training. In ancient Greece the Athenians were concerned with both physical and mental development and consequently they accorded gymnastics, sports, and rhythms an important educational role. During the period of the Roman Empire, and later during the Middle Ages, physical education was primarily used as a form of military training.
Interest in physical education as a part of the total individual's development was revived during the Renaissance. It was not until the 19th cent., however, that systems of gymnastics were developed in several European countries, notably Germany, Sweden, and England. In the same century gymnastics spread to the United States. Interest in the new system led to a movement to have compulsory physical training in American public schools and to establish physical education in colleges and universities. The first department of physical education at an American college was established at Amherst (1860).
Today, physical education is a required part of most school curricula, and a number of colleges and universities offer degrees in the field. Physical education classes generally include formal exercises, sports, and contests, although an increasing emphasis has been given to such Asian techniques as yoga, karate, and judo. The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (founded 1885) is concerned with improving its fields of education and with increasing the public's knowledge and appreciation of physical education.
See publications of the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation; J. F. Williams, Principles of Physical Education (8th ed. 1964); D. Van Dalen, A World History of Physical Education (2d ed. 1971).