Physical education teachers are trading in their traditional equipment for heart-rate monitors and video games that encourage running, jumping, and stretching. Taken together, these two trends are transforming P.E. classes across the country and are spurring school officials to vie for millions in grants.

More than 10,000 schools across the country reportedly use heart-rate monitors—wristwatches that calculate a student’s heartbeat and heart rate target zone—that make it easier for teachers to track student performance. And a growing number of schools are embracing a new phenomenon known as "exergaming," encouraging students to exercise using video games such as Nintendo’s new Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), in which players mimic dance moves on the screen, requiring constant movement.
Advocates of this trend say integrating gaming into gym classes—replacing the monotony of jumping rope or running laps—could increase participation among all students, rather than the sliver of "jocks" in every class. This could help stem the alarming increase in childhood obesity in the United States, experts say, where 16 percent of people ages six to 19 are overweight or obese. That number has more than tripled since 1980, according to health watchdog groups.

"It’s motivating for students, it’s intriguing to them, it really captures people’s attention, and it gives you a vehicle for talking about healthy lifestyles and consistent physical activity patterns," said Fran Cleland, president of the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE), one of the country’s most prominent physical education organizations. "It allows you to do that in a more mechanized way."

Last year, many West Virginia schools bought Dance Dance Revolution games to encourage activity among children who have proven reluctant or unwilling to participate in ordinary team sports, said Susan Promislo, a spokeswoman for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization that includes Health Games Research. West Virginia, one of about 10 states that use DDR in gym classes, was a sensible choice for new P.E. technology, Promislo said. The state has one of the highest obesity rates in the country.

"Kids [who] would not otherwise play sports or get off the sidelines in gym class are finding DDR to be a fun, appealing option that gets them burning calories without feeling like they’re exercising," Promislo said.

Cleland, whose Virginia-based organization reportedly represents 16,000 educators, said bringing video-game technology to gym classes could be the next step in what experts call the "new physical education." Teachers said this could include Nintendo’s Wii Fit, a brand-new game that encourages workouts on a small balance board that gamers stand on. Players receive instructions from the screen and mimic the stretching and muscle-building exercises.

Denise Kaigler, vice president of corporate affairs for Nintendo of America, said the company was aware of five New York City middle schools that will use Wii Fit in the coming year, but because the system was introduced to the market only a few weeks ago, "we do not have any way to estimate how many [schools] are using it."

Wii Fit’s tracking feature, which shows the progress made by players using the system, could make it a valuable tool for school P.E. classes. But, although it might add to students’ daily physical education curriculum, teachers should not consider the gaming system equivalent to traditional exercise.

"It should be considered a supplement to, not a replacement for, the individual’s normal fitness regimen," Kaigler said in an eMail message to eSchool News. "Users can use Wii Fit vigorously or for just a light workout, depending on their level of fitness."

Teaching a generation of students who grew up with video games, Cleland said, will require gym teachers to ditch dodge balls and kick balls for more advanced equipment—which can be pricey. Fortunately, a number of new grant programs can help. And, as school officials apply for grants that bring in thousands for physical education classes, Cleland said, principals and superintendents will begin to equate those classes to traditional courses such as science, math, and English. 

"Anything that can add legitimacy to physical education is worth the effort," she said, adding: "I think it brings physical education to the forefront, and people pay attention to it as administrators."

In March, EnergyNow!, a fitness technology organization, unveiled a round of physical education grants to schools in Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Each school was eligible to receive more than $12,000, which could be used to purchase assessment technology such as heart-rate monitors and provide training for physical education teachers who aren’t familiar with the latest in P.E. advancements. EnergyNow! is run by Polar USA, a manufacturing company that makes heart-rate monitors reportedly used in 10,000 schools across the country.

The Brevard County, Fla., school district last year received a three-year, $1.2 million grant for P.E. technology from the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, a federal program that issues grants every year. At Melbourne High School in Brevard, heart-rate monitors have allowed students to watch their heart rates rise and fall as they walk, jog, or sprint. The immediate feedback, teachers said, was an incentive for children who wanted to see the results of their work right away.

"It’s nice for them to see where they are and where they can go … and it’s good for them to see their improvements," said Brenda Sadowski, a physical education teacher at Melbourne High for six years. "It doesn’t have to be explained to them. They can look at it and understand where they are and where they need to go."

The monitors come with computer software that lets teachers track students’ progress in organized charts. Instead of jotting down the number of laps a student ran, the software tracks increases and decreases in students’ flexibility, muscle endurance, and heart rate. When parents inquire how their child is faring in P.E. class, Sadowski said the software’s hard evidence—detailed graphs and charts—makes parent-teacher conferences more productive.

"Now, I have documentation that’s not subjective, but much more objective," she said.

Jeff Padovan, president of Polar USA, said the company has received several letters from parents of students who were alerted of an irregular heartbeat only after Polar’s monitors were used in P.E. classes. Along with the heart-rate monitors’ health function, the devices and the accompanying software also give teachers a long-term table of student progress.

"All the record keeping is there," Padovan said. "It’s really the first time that gym class can be quantified."

Sadowski said some students were concerned when they couldn’t reach their target heart-rate zones as easily as they could at the beginning of the academic year. She said that created the chance to give a lesson on heart- and muscle-recovery rates and how they improve after consistent exercise over weeks or months.

Before heart-rate monitors became a staple of gym class at Melbourne High School, Sadowski said some students gave a half-hearted effort—sometimes even less—during running or jogging classes. But with the monitors’ hard numbers showing how hard they tried during each class, those students have begun to run stride for stride with their classmates.

"The kids who were able to kind of cheat through P.E. before, it makes them more accountable," said Sadowski, who recently was named the Southern District Teacher of the Year by NASPE. "It puts them at the same level as everyone else."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Games Research program will commit $8.25 million to research and application of interactive games that facilitate physical activity. Promislo said officials with the program will study ways people interact with and respond to exercise technology, which could give educators a better understanding of what will be most effective in middle and high school gym classes. The research will include context-sensitive programs that use sensors, interactive televisions, virtual environments, electronic toys, and dance pads similar to the devices used for DDR or the Wii Fit system.

The University of California at San Diego announced last month that its Department of Family and Preventative Medicine won a $198,000 grant from Robert Wood Johnson to explore how video games could improve health. Gregory Norman, the university’s lead investigator on exergaming research, said the UC San Diego team would examine how exergames could trump the appeal of video games that keep children on the couch, providing a workout only for their thumbs.

"We want to know what aspects about exergames, under what conditions, can capture an adolescent’s attention, particularly in an environment where there are a lot of alternative sedentary things to do, such as watch TV, play non-active video games, or sit at the computer," Norman said.


Health Games Research

National Association of Sport and Physical Education