Educators who view gym class as the last vestige of traditional teaching in an increasingly technology-rich environment might have to adjust their way of thinking.

Schools across the country are employing cutting-edge computer equipment to help high school students customize their workouts to fit the needs of their growing bodies and specific sports. But the technology is not just for athletes—physical education students also participate.

At the Naperville, Ill., Central High School in suburban Chicago, students receive detailed fitness evaluations, complete with health-risk assessments based on family history and physical data. They can tailor their workouts to target a specific heart rate by wearing sophisticated heart-rate monitors, and they learn the importance of lifetime fitness skills through the use of high-tech physical education equipment.

“We are not about athletics, we are about overall exercise and fitness,” said Paul Zientarski, department coordinator for Physical Education, Health, and Driver Education at Naperville Central. “This country spent $1 trillion on health care last year, and only one-tenth of one percent was spent on prevention. This program is justified if students learn about the importance of good health through exercise.”

Naperville has installed health and weight training equipment usually used only by private gyms and professional athletes.

The Schwinn Fitness Advisor, which costs between $30,000 and $38,000, is a computer tracking system that provides users with a customized training program and continual assessment of their progress. It can be used with most existing strength-training equipment.

Each student is given a card they swipe through the system. The Fitness Advisor then pulls up a detailed personal record of the student’s workout program and preferences, and it prints graphs to show progress.

The computer at each workout station reminds the student of his or her individual machine settings. It tells the student how many times to repeat a certain movement and at what speed. On cardiovascular equipment, the system monitors time, distance, calories, heart rate, and performance levels for each youth.

“With the Fitness Advisor, we can really grade students based on how much effort they put in. They don’t have to be great athletes. We get a computer printout saying what each students has done and grade accordingly,” Zientarski said. “We’re not trying to build the super-athlete. We just want kids to meet their potential.”

Professional trainer Clyde Emrich, former strength coach for the Chicago Bears football team, said there are potential benefits to having equipment like this available to students.

“Computerized machines are good when you have a large amount of people to train,” Emrich said. But computers aren’t meant to take the place of a professional coach or trainer, he said; instead, they are intended to supplement a trainer: “I don’t care how high-tech a machine is. You must have someone there to monitor your progress.”

Zientarski agreed: “We have 16 work stations and it’s really nice, because it’s like having 16 extra pairs of eyes.”

Naperville Central athletes also use the Fitness Advisor to train for their extra-curricular sports. According to Zientarski, Illinois has a four-year physical education requirement. Athletes can begin their daily workouts in their gym classes, and coaches can call up what they already have done for the day at practice, so students won’t overwork themselves.

In addition to the Schwinn Fitness Advisor, Naperville Central has 180 Polar heart monitors to help trainers make sure that kids aren’t putting themselves at a health risk. In keeping with the school’s commitment to fitness, Naperville also has installed the TriFIT fitness analysis computer, made by Healthfirst.

TriFIT allows trainers to test blood pressure, body composition, biceps strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular capacity. Students are encouraged to complete a health-risk appraisal on the machine. They answer questions about medical and family history, and the appraisal gives them an approximate idea of their susceptibility to heart disease, diabetes, stress, depression, and cancer. Standard TriFIT units cost around $7,000.

“Our goal in the next three to four years is to create K-12 fitness portfolios for kids, just like yearly reading assessments,” Zientarski said. “These [fitness] assessments are valid and based on the effort made by the students. I truly believe this is the way physical education should be moving.”

Apparently, fitness machine companies also see a bright future in the education market. Both Schwinn and Healthfirst have added special equipment designed specifically for schools to their product lines. On its web site, Healthfirst states, “No longer will the P.E. teacher be thought of as the person who throws the ball out to start class. By moving into this technology-based curriculum, many schools and school systems across the country have met their state’s mandated goals for learning.”

Students seem to like the high-tech gym classes as well. According to Zientarski, all freshmen are required to take the basic fitness skills course, but the higher grades are allowed to pick the gym classes they want on an elective basis. “The lines to select these weight training classes are outrageous,” he said. “I think any time you put a student with computers, you get great responses.”

Naperville Community Unit School District 203
http://www.iit.edu/~nchs/District203/

Schwinn Fitness Advisor
http://www.schwinn.com/2k/fit/fitnessadvisor/computerized.html

Healthfirst Wellness Technology
http://www.healthfirstusa.com