SRU professor explains differences between health/physical education and wellness education


Students playing sports

Slippery Rock University is changing the way educators approach health and physical education with a new model called wellness education.

Feb. 10, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Gym class has been dismissed and there's a new way for teaching health and physical education that is now in session. It's called wellness education, and for the last decade, Slippery Rock University has been changing the way K-12 educators approach what has been traditionally called phys ed, P.E. or gym class.

So, what is the difference between health and physical education and wellness education?

"The old model of health and physical education is geared around sports and games, and answering the question: 'What are we going to do today?,'" said Randy Nichols, SRU professor of physical and health education. "The new model is about 'What are we going to learn today?,' and the learning is centered around self-care and well-being. The new model is much more individually based with personalized learning, whereas the old model was about groups and teams playing a sport. The goal is to give students the confidence and skills to take care of themselves and to be engaged in their well-being."



The Pennsylvania Department of Education describes health and physical education as providing "students with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to achieve and maintain a physically active and healthful life, not only during their time in school but for a lifetime."

There are similarities between the two concepts. The new model emphasizes "well-being," which refers to the holistic dimensions of an individual's life that is well-lived, and "wellness," which broadly describes a healthy lifestyle. Physical activity is just one of many elements of a wellness education.

The practice, however, is often how the two models diverge.

"There's a difference between being a wellness educator and a gym teacher, and we need so much more wellness education in schools today instead of having kids playing dodgeball, matball or whatever occupies class time," Nichols said. "We need to teach them how to eat better or how to control their stress and anxiety -- those are all part of wellness education."

According to Nichols, there are six components to a wellness education curriculum:

  • Physical activity.
  • Nutrition.
  • Safety and injury prevention.
  • Social and emotional wellness.
  • The human body and the human body response.
  • Health-related fitness.

SRU first instituted this model in 2014 when physical and health education undergraduate students were offered a concentration in school wellness education. In fall 2021, SRU revamped its adapted physical activity graduate program and began offering a Master of Science in Lifelong Wellness through Innovative Leadership in which students can choose between two concentrations: adapted physical activity and the recently added school wellness education.

The SWE graduate program is offered completely online and is geared toward providing practicing teachers and administrators strategies for transitioning from a traditional health and physical education model to a school wellness education model. It's also ideal for teachers needing Level II certification, which requires educators in Pennsylvania who have been teaching for six years to obtain 24 post-baccalaureate credits.

Many school districts are adopting SRU's wellness education model, including Deer Lakes and North Allegheny School Districts, to name a few.

"Administrators at public schools are recognizing the importance and the impact of switching to the wellness education model and teachers are finding more purpose and relevance in their careers," Nichols said. "Many public schools have inquired about retraining their teachers, or they have teachers who were trained by our faculty during the past few years."

Also, the wellness education model and the focus on the whole-child approach to health and physical education align with current initiatives from the Society of Health and Physical Educators, known as SHAPE America, and the Centers for Disease and Prevention.

"We're confident that this model is here to stay and that's why this SWE concentration will have a lasting impact on preparing the next generation of wellness teachers," Nichols said.

More information about SRU's lifelong wellness through innovative leadership program and the SWE graduate program is available on the University's website.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854  |