50 Million Strong by 2029 National Forum: Rethinking our Purpose

It’s been almost two years since SHAPE America announced its commitment to changing the way health and physical educators do business. It might not have sounded much at the time but on closer examination it was a seismic shift in thinking. For years, those of us serious about being “good” teachers had done our best. We thought a lot about our instruction, kept up with new ideas, let national standards guide us, labored over designing quality lessons, sought to adopt best teaching practices, and embraced the need for better assessments. We were serious about our profession and critical of those throw-out-the-ball colleagues whose don’t-much-care attitudes were cringe-worthy. Given the many limitations we faced – the lack of resources, space, and support – what more could be expected from us? We already worked countless often unappreciated hours. Frankly, our cup was full. Surely enough’s enough! Quit asking us to do more!

But that’s exactly what SHAPE America was doing. At the 2015 Seattle convention, on behalf of SHAPE America, President Dolly Lambdin challenged us to rethink, retool, and reimagine how and what we did in our health education and physical education classes. And WHY? She wasn’t suggesting that we weren’t trying. No one doubted that most of us were trying as hard as we could. The problem was that our efforts weren’t getting the outcomes we wanted. Simply stated, to just teach well was good, but not good enough. Trying hard maybe counted for something, but the profession wasn’t getting the results it needed to thrive. Just as dieting means little if you don’t lose weight, teaching well isn’t so praiseworthy if student behaviors don’t change. And in most places, they weren’t.

The data was clear. Three decades of worsening childhood obesity. Kids moving less and eating more. Now no one’s suggesting that it’s our fault alone. But clearly as teachers, we’ve failed to successfully motivate America’s youth to become and stay physically active and to make healthy lifestyle choices. It just hasn’t happened despite the devastating and very predictable social, emotional, and financial consequences if these trends continue.

At the same time, others have noticed and grown alarmed at the rise in sedentary living and unhealthy youth behaviors. We’ve seen an explosive growth in groups inspired to get kids more active and healthy. And yet no group across the country is as well prepared or so well represented to make these changes a reality as America’s health educators and physical educators. In most communities, we are present in the lives of America’s 50+ million school-attending students for 14 of the most influential developmental years of their lives. But sadly to date, despite the best motivation, the evidence shows we’ve mostly failed. So, what’s to be done?

That’s the challenge that SHAPE America’s 50 Million Strong by 2029 commitment was designed to solve. After a lot of back-and-forth wrangling, SHAPE America’s leaders agreed that our professional association needed to focus not on teachers but on kids. Not on stakeholders but customers. And more specifically, on the impact teacher efforts were having on students’ lives. Trying to sell the value of teachers to outside groups is a hard sell. It’s easy to sound self-serving when asking for support so obviously intended to benefit the askers. But CHILDREN that’s another thing. Who’s not in favor of improving the quality of kid’s lives!? If you’ve ever been to a SPEAK Out Day you’ll know that legislators love to talk about children. Not so much about teachers.

50 Million Strong is all about children. Its focus is simple: Getting America’s youth more active and healthier. Now keep in mind that’s the simple explanation. And for some it’s been an oversimplification. But it’s all about targeted messaging. For public consumption, the simpler the better. “Just do it,” “Be all you can be,” “LiveStrong,”- you get it! Avoid confusion. Keep it simple. Sure, as professionals we should all understand that at the heart of 50 Million Strong is an awareness that it’s through effectively teaching skills and knowledge, and developing positive relationships with students who value our teaching, that our students will develop the desire and motivation to choose to be physically active and to make wise health decisions in their everyday lives. But that’s a mouthful for outsiders and best avoided if we want to change public opinion.

But still as health and physical education professions today we face a problem. 50 Million Strong will succeed only if all of us see it and seize it as a change movement – just like recycling or going green. And right now it isn’t. Just like cats it’s proven hard to herd us teachers all in the same direction.  But all of us must commit to succeed. If we don’t all get on the same bus and agree to go in the same direction 50 Million Strong will fail. Guaranteed. And then where will we be? Maybe the same, but maybe worse off than we are today. We can’t ignore that others are determined to change student physical activity and health behaviors. If we don’t take responsibility, others will. If we feel marginalized in America’s schools today, what makes us think the future will be any prettier? The “gym” teacher moniker so many of us despise may well become appropriate because that’s where we will reside! Others will guide student physical activity outside of our classes.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to change our professional future. And that’s why the 50 Million Strong by 2029 National Forum at the Boston SHAPE America national convention is so exciting. With more than 400 signed up to participate it’s a great opportunity to sort out what we want to do. What’s our purpose in today’s schools? It’s been said that the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself. If so, the 50 Million Strong forum is our chance. If you’re planning to attend, I hope you’ll set aside long-held beliefs, put on your thinking cap, and bring your best creative, open-minded attitude. It’s an occasion to be inspired and maybe inspire others. But most importantly, it’s a rare chance to pause and reflect about where you want our professions and your career to go in this rapidly changing and increasingly unpredictable 21st century: And decide what it’s going to take to get there.


50 Million Strong Case Studies

Read how your teaching colleagues are showing their commitment to increasing physical activity and bringing good health to their students! Remember - It begins with US (and that includes physical and health educators everywhere!)  


  1. McAllen ISD (Texas) utilizes 50 Million Strong in our district. As a Health and Physical Education Coordinator for fifteen years, I can honestly say the 50MS initiative is one of the best ever SHAPE America resources. I am hopeful more coordinators, health and physical educators throughout the country join the 50 Million Strong movement – its a no brainer!!! Sincerely, Mario Reyna

  2. I agree completely and wish you all the best at the convention. I know that good ideas will come from the discussion and I look forward to working with all of you to bring them to fruition.

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