While early Carolina students often participated in outdoor games, the university did not require physical education until 1891. To encourage physical fitness among the student body, students were required to take part in exercises at the gymnasium (then located in Commons Hall) three times a week. These early classes were organized by the campus YMCA. The requirements have changed many times over the years. In 1896 all students had to exercise at the gym for thirty minutes a day. By the early twentieth century this was reduced to a varying number of hours a week, with different requirements by class. World War I brought about an increased focus on physical training, and a Department of Physical Education was established soon after, with a separate physical education department for women created in 1933. In 1938 the two were combined into the Department of Physical Education and Athletics.
In the 1930s and 1940s the physical education department was closely aligned with the athletic department and recreational sports. By the 1950s the different functions separated and the Department of Physical Education focused exclusively on teaching. The curriculum received a full revision in the 1980s, reflected in the change of the name to the Department of Physical Education, Exercise, and Sport Science. In 1999 it was shortened to the Department of Exercise and Sport Science.