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“By the time they get out of here, they’ll be different people,” says Hayward Nishioka, a professor emeritus of physical education at Los Angeles City College, about his judo students, many of whom had little or no physical education before they enrolled in college.
January 12, 2015
It’s warm-up time at 7:45 a.m., with sunlight just starting to stream into a mat room in the kinesiology building at Los Angeles City College. A dozen students—most of them Latinas, all dressed in thick, white judo uniforms—stand at one end of the room, breathing hard, their hands over their heads or resting heavily on their hips. It’s too early to be up, their faces say, and way too early to bear crawl, somersault, or drag yourself across the room using only your arms.
"Ready," comes a new command, "let’s shrimp!" It’s like a sit-up, combined with scooting butt-first along the mat. One young woman curses under her breath, while the rest bend to the floor in resignation. This is only the beginning: Later this morning, they will repeatedly toss one another to the ground, wrestle a partner into submission, or escape from a heavy pin.
Hayward Nishioka stands quietly on one side of the room, looking for signs of a transformation he has seen in scores of judo students at LACC. Most had almost no physical education leading up to college, he says, speculating that if they had known what his judo course entailed, they would have quit. Now, midway through the semester, he sees grit.
"By the time they get out of here, they’ll be different people," says Mr. Nishioka, a professor emeritus of physical education at LACC. "Just this type of movement says to them: ‘I can move, I can roll. I can also go against somebody. These people are trying really hard to try to beat me up, but I am able to survive this.’ "
Decades ago, Mr. Nishioka used judo in his own bid to survive. It was an escape route from a rough East LA neighborhood, to travel the world as an international judo champion. After his competitive career was over, he spent 40 years here at LACC—eight years as chair of the physical-education department—helping students with backgrounds much like his own discover the vitality of their bodies, the connection of that body to the mind, and the new confidence, character, and life lessons that might come from a little soreness and sweat.
"We are physical creatures, first and foremost," he says. "Everything we do in education is about improving the brain. But how do we improve the brain? Through our physical acts. Our physical senses are our antennae."
Mr. Nishioka’s focus on the body runs counter to prevailing trends, from kindergarten through college, where recess and physical education have been given up in favor of more sit-down classroom time. Although colleges have built lots of swanky recreation centers in recent years, studies indicate that college physical-education requirements are at an an all-time low. Meanwhile, researchers have seen alarming trends among the college-aged population: significant rates of obesity, hypertension, depression, anxiety.
Paradoxically, colleges are cutting back on physical education just as a growing body of research indicates that regular physical activity is key to cognitive development and helps people focus, process information faster, and remember things more easily. John J. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has called exercise
"Miracle-Gro for the brain."
Researchers say that students who take more physical-education courses in college are more likely to remain active for life. But the proportion of colleges that require such courses has dropped over the decades.
Percentage of colleges requiring physical education
Bradley J. Cardinal, a professor of public health and human sciences at Oregon State University, has researched the decline of physical education at colleges. "There is definitely a point of irony with schools saying we want to focus on academics, so we are going to cut back on physical activity or physical education," he says. "We do research showing the benefits of physical activity, and the federal government funds this stuff, and we don’t use it."
Moreover, Mr. Nishioka, reaching back to the idealistic founders of judo, says physical educators are losing the opportunity to teach life lessons that go beyond fitness and health. The field or the judo mat, for example, can be a place to learn about loyalty, resolve, or courage in the face of sure defeat—a lesson rarely conveyed so effectively in a classroom. "Physical education should be more about teaching values, morals, losing with honor, friendship," he says. "Even physical educators these days don’t think about these things."
David Zentz for The Chronicle
Mr. Nishioka: “Everything we do in education is about improving the brain. But how do we improve the brain? Through our physical acts.”
Mr. Nishioka made his fame though combat on the judo mat, and he seems to have spent his whole life fighting. He was born in 1942 to a single mother and never knew his father, whom he suspects was a criminal. He spent the first few years of his life in a Japanese internment camp before returning to East LA, where he was always in one scrap or another. Kids would hunt him down after school and call him a "Jap."
"That was a war cry," he says. They’d gang up on him. But the young Nishioka adhered to a Japanese principle of kataki-uchi,or blood revenge. He would follow kids home from school or go looking for them at their houses, when they’d be alone, and he’d give a licking right back.
When he was about 12, Dan Oka, the man who would become Mr. Nishioka’s stepfather, took the boy to watch a judo contest. "I was taken by their throws and flying through the air," he says. "When we got back to the house, I said, ‘What’s that like? I want to try that.’ " Mr. Oka put an old army jacket on the boy, grabbed him by the collar, and tossed him onto the wood floor several times. Despite the bumps and bruises, Mr. Nishioka was hooked.
Judo is a Japanese form of wrestling. Two fighters try to hurl each other to the mat. A perfect throw, landing a player flat on his back, will end the match. An imperfect throw might bring the fight to the ground, where the fighters try to pin their opponents or make them submit using strangleholds or potentially bone-breaking armlocks.
Compared with street fighting, Mr. Nishioka says, judo seemed easy. It had rules—and beauty in turning an opponent’s force into a sailing throw. But Mr. Nishioka went out on the mat with the same primal instinct for survival he’d carried to the streets. From 1965 to 1970, he won three national championships and a gold medal in the Pan-American Games. Judo took him around the world—on a goodwill tour of Europe with teammates like Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who would later become a U.S. senator, and to Japan, where he studied with Shigeru Egami, a legendary karate instructor.
As his competitive career waned in the 1970s, he began teaching judo at Los Angeles City College. It was a transition that put Mr. Nishioka more firmly on a path set by judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano.
Kano, who studied philosophy and economics under Western professors, was a director in Japan’s Ministry of Education and is now considered the country’s "father of physical education." Trained in samurai jiujitsu from his teenage years in the 1870s to early adulthood, Kano was strongly influenced by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who described the ideal education as one that blends mind, morals, and body. In 1908, Kano’s judo, a recreational form of jiujitsu, became a requirement in Japanese schools.
John Stevens, a former professor of Buddhist studies at Tohoku Fukushi University who wrote a biography of Kano, says the ideal person of the samurai era—which lasted into Kano’s childhood—was a physical force on the battlefield as well as an accomplished statesman, poet, or philosopher. After the Meiji Restoration, "scholarly people became kind of wimpy," Mr. Stevens says. "When Kano was teaching high school, he was appalled at how weak the students were—a lot of them had servants that would carry their books to class." When Kano visited the legislature, he would stop officials and tell them they looked ill and should exercise more.
"You cannot be a well-rounded person if you don’t know your body, or be confident, or be aware of your surroundings—all of those things you get from judo training." Mr. Stevens says. "Ideally, that’s what he wanted."
At the grade-school level in the United States, parents and teachers have lamented how schools have shortened recess and gym classes to make room for written exercises and testing. After-school entertainment, meanwhile, has become more sedentary: gaming, surfing the Internet, texting friends. That has led to what some physical educators call a "pipeline problem" for college PE programs.
"A lot of these students were not physically active as kids," says Jared A. Russell, an associate professor of kinesiology at Auburn University. "We have students coming to campus who have never swung a tennis racket or a baseball bat, or who can’t swim at all."
The trend among grade-school physical-education programs has been seen in college programs, too. Mr. Cardinal, of Oregon State, was a co-author of a 2012 study showing that among 354 institutions, fewer than 40 percent had maintained any physical-education requirement, down from 67 percent in 1993 and 87 percent in 1968. Public institutions were more likely than private ones to have dropped the requirement.
Mr. Cardinal points to several possible explanations. For one, physical-education departments might be politically weaker than other departments on campus, and lose ground as administrators shift more resources and emphasis to science, math, and other academic subjects. PE programs are also professionalizing—as they rebrand under the more scientifically oriented "kinesiology," the departments focus more on sending students into health fields like physical therapy or nutrition, and less on "service" courses like swimming or basketball.
The departments’ facilities have also, to some extent on campuses across the country, been replaced by opulent recreation centers. Administrators look at those rec centers and wonder why they need to spend money on physical-education departments.
Some of those factors seem to have gone into a decision earlier this year at the University of Notre Dame to eliminate the physical-education department and requirements to take two PE courses and pass a swimming test. Next year the requirements will be replaced by two courses that spend more time on university orientation, community standards, strategies for academic success, and spiritual life, as well as helping students set goals for physical activity.
Hugh R. Page Jr., dean of the First Year of Studies program, says the new courses are "placing a greater degree of the onus for wellness on the shoulders of individual students" by encouraging them to take "ownership of their physical well-being." Notre Dame, he says, is not diminishing its emphasis on physical activity. He points out that three-quarters of the students played on varsity teams in high school and will play some intramural, club, or intercollegiate sport during their time at the university. "You don’t necessarily have to require students to take a volleyball course or a tennis course to generate their involvement" in physical activity, he says.
It’s a different story at Los Angeles City College. As chair of the PE department, Mr. Nishioka spent the past several years fighting for more prominence for physical education, only to see administrators cut the square footage of a new kinesiology building by half. When Mr. Nishioka started at LACC, in the 1970s, students were required to take one PE class every semester; today they're required to take only one during their time at the college.
And over the years, the "pipeline problem" in Los Angeles has become just as challenging as in any other city. In 2013, student advocates sued 37 California school districts for not providing the physical-education hours mandated by state law. Some critics have highlighted the condition of PE at the Los Angeles Unified School District as particularly egregious. Studies found that 25 to 40 percent of students from the district were obese, and 75 percent failed state fitness standards.
Under pressure to jam more math, reading, social studies, and science into each semester with fewer resources, schools and colleges have found room by cutting back on exercise time. "All of my research flies in the face of that, and that is actually contrary and counterproductive to normal growth and development," says Darla M. Castelli, an associate professor of physical-education pedagogy at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies the connection between exercise and brain health.
Her studies and others show that regular exercise allows people to process information more accurately, allocate more working memory to a given task, and improve attention span—even among people in their cognitive peak years, from age 21 to 27.
There are several competing theories to explain those effects: Aerobic activity might help oxygenate the brain through increased blood flow, stimulating the growth of new brain cells or helping to maintain neuroplasticity, or the connection of synapses. Physical activity might also activate the production of "brain-derived neurotropic factor," or BDNF, a protein that stimulates the growth of the hippocampal region, which is responsible for memory.
David Zentz for The Chronicle
The dance studio in Reed College’s new performing-arts facility. Research suggests that people get cognitive benefits from coordinated movements—as in dance, where a person has to work off of and respond to a partner.
Ms. Castelli says one study suggests that people get cognitive benefits from coordinated movements—as in, say, dance, where a person has to work off of and respond to a partner. And there are new theories that active people can build up a cognitive "reserve" that will stave off decline as they head into their 30s and beyond.
Unfortunately, her studies of people in the peak college years show nearly 50 percent with signs of cardiometabolic risk factors, like high glucose or high blood-lipid levels. "They’re at risk and they don’t even know it, and they’re largely inactive," she says. Most believe that they are getting all the exercise they need by walking to class.
There is an ancient ideal that goes beyond brain or bodily health: The classroom instructs in one way, but the field, judo mat, and dance floor hold other invaluable lessons, especially as educators emphasize the importance of collaboration. Mr. Cardinal often discusses the topic with his wife, who teaches dance at Western Oregon University: Dance harnesses creativity in the moment, working in space and time to challenge an individual in a whole new way—to say nothing of the courage it takes to cut loose in front of an audience.
Or he mentions times when he has seen groups of colleagues take on a ropes course: There, the person who is a leader in the office or classroom often becomes a follower. "And someone who is not typically the leader now has to be in the leadership position," he says, "and people see him in a new light."
That is what Kano intended when he created judo, more than 100 years ago. Old samurai fighting techniques, through a marriage of mind and body, would teach principles that people could use everywhere. "Judo began with the study of martial arts, and then it gradually became clear that it could be applied to physical education, intellectual training, moral education, social interaction, management, and people’s everyday lives," Kano wrote. "It is wrong to assume that judo ends in the dojo."
At judo practice in Los Angeles, as tangled bodies roll on the ground, it’s clear that the close contact, aggression, pain—and, occasionally, the unexpectedly graceful throws—push some students to discover things about themselves. For Marilyn Hernandez, who is studying biochemistry, the class was her first experience with a contact sport. "I really fell in love with it," she says. Every tussle on the mat gave her lessons in improvisation and determination, and she lost 30 pounds to boot. "You have to say, I can do this. You are the person who is going to win. It’s mental." She dreams of transferring to San Jose State University, which has a top-ranked judo team.
Sintia Diaz, who is studying early-childhood education, has decided that she wants to become a professional fighter, and she was thrilled to land in a class led by a martial-arts luminary. She’s tiny, about five feet tall and slight. Yet she’s a pit bull—walking up to men a foot taller than her and challenging them to fight. She says she once lacked self-esteem, in part because of her size. "Judo gave me a totally different perspective about myself," she says. Now if she makes a mistake or fails at something, she shrugs it off. "It’s about how did I grow, or what did I learn? It’s crazy to take a class for a few months and feel totally empowered. I had never felt that before."
Mr. Nishioka observes all of this from the sidelines or while walking through the grappling bodies, stopping now and then to adjust a pin or a cranking arm. At the end of the class, he tells the students to encircle the mat, and he reminds them why they are here. "What is judo about? Is it just technique?" he prods. No. "Small judo" is just the throws and pins and how they work.
"But ‘large judo’ is taking the techniques and concepts and applying them to your everyday lives," he says. To meet a challenge, to do the impossible, to have courage. "This is one of the few activities at City College that will teach you about bravery," he says, gesturing to the mat, "because you have to be brave to get out here."
The Power of the Physical
David Zentz for The Chronicle.
Hayward Nishioka is an international judo champion who uses martial arts to help students see the relationship between the body and the mind.
David Zentz for The Chronicle.
Mr. Nishioka teaches judo at Los Angeles City College, not far from the rough East Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up.
David Zentz for The Chronicle.
“Everything we do in education is about improving the brain," says Mr. Nishioka. "But how do we improve the brain? Through our physical acts.”
David Zentz for The Chronicle.
Mr. Nishioka spent the last several years of his career fighting for more prominence for physical education, only to see administrators cut the square footage of a new kinesiology building by half.
David Zentz for The Chronicle.
"This is one of the few activities at City College that will teach you about bravery," says Mr. Nishioka, gesturing to the mat, "because you have to be brave to get out here."
David Zentz for The Chronicle.
A game of solitaire at Mr. Nishioka's home in San Pedro, Calif., reveals the disfigurement of his hand from numerous breaks over a lifetime of practicing martial arts.