For many, the thought of physical education will trigger memories of balance beams, school sports days and dusty gymnasiums.
It’s a subject those uninterested in sport will have likely left behind after high school, as they tailored their studies towards their career aspirations.
However, at NYU Abu Dhabi, physical education remains at the forefront – for everyone.
The Abu Dhabi outpost of the famous New York University makes physical education a key part of its focus for every student, regardless of their degree. It is the only university in the region to include a mandatory PE element in its syllabus, and the results speak for themselves – almost a third of students take more than the two mandatory PE units, with a 100 per cent pass rate.
“A lot of times we tend to educate from the neck up,” says Matthew MacDonald, physical education curriculum manager at NYU Abu Dhabi. “We think that this body we have is just a vehicle for transporting our brain. But the university knows how connected the body and the mind is, and has done a really good job at educating the whole person.”
But the type of physical education that takes place at NYU Abu Dhabi is not your standard track and field. The idea is to set up students with healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
Of course, students can take part in traditional sports, but they can also try activities such as paddle boarding and rock climbing, as well as exploring courses designed to improve their general and mental well-being.
Never has that been more important than during a global pandemic, when many of NYU Abu Dhabi’s students, who come from all around the world, were isolated from friends and families, trying to come to terms with the new normal of remote learning.
Like many of the world’s education institutions, NYU Abu Dhabi was forced to take things online, which, for a subject like physical education, is not an easy task.
“I remember at the start of the pandemic, there was this viral video going around of a phys-ed teacher in an office with a swim cap on pouring water over his head,” MacDonald says. “He was like ‘OK kids, let’s do our swimming lesson for the day’. And I remember looking at it and laughing, but thinking, ‘wow, how are we going to adjust?’"
But not only did the department adjust, it helped students value physical education more than ever.
“One of the things I feel doesn't get talked about nearly enough about is the negative part of working from home. For a lot of people, it can be very isolating, especially if you’re used to getting a strong sense of community from your work,” MacDonald says.
“That was one of the main pillars we wanted to make sure we continued throughout that period of being remote; keeping that sense of community strong amongst our students.”
During an unprecedented year for university students, online PE classes helped provide that sense of community and routine. Despite MacDonald’s initial concern over whether students would engage digitally, virtual workouts turned out to be the perfect place for people to reacquaint themselves with physical education at their own pace.
“Initially I thought this was going to be something that students would dread, but some of our first-year students, who've never taken an in-person course, ended up taking four courses online," he says.
"They are only required to do two PE courses to graduate, but we've had some students take three and four courses, which really reaffirms that we are offering something that's providing value.”
One of the new courses introduced online was Healthy Habits, which teaches students how to form healthy behaviours, be that establishing a regular exercise routine, meditating or something as simple as keeping their dorm room tidy.
“The course opened my eyes to how focusing on my well-being wasn't a task but a privilege,” says NYU Abu Dhabi student Noora.
“The challenges I once considered obstacles to a healthy lifestyle became stepping stones to building resilience and character.”
Other courses introduced during the pandemic included Running 101, Nutrition 101, Holistic Happiness and Yoga – many of which have women-only options.
“I had doubts about PE online, as I never imagined it would be as immersive and engaging as physically being in the room,” says student Branden Kang of the university's HIIT classes.
“But the instructor always had eyes on everyone throughout each session, constantly communicating with us and motivating us to keep going. It truly felt like we were all working out in the same room together.”
As NYU Abu Dhabi prepares to welcome students back for a new year, the success of the online physical education programme means that virtual classes are here to stay, as well as the reintroduction of hands-on sports.
And the online courses will help more than just the students in the UAE.
“We have our three main sites in New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but then we have all these other global sites for students to have the opportunity to study away,” MacDonald explains.
“Abu Dhabi is the only site that offers physical education. So when students come here, it’s one of the things they really look forward to, but when they go to these other sites, we're often not able to engage them during that period of time. But thanks to the success of this past year, we will now be able to reach our students when they go to other campuses.
“I don't think there's anything that can obviously replace the in-person experience, but certainly it will be part of our programming moving forward.”