Healthy data: Technology-driven PE program tracks students’ physical activity

March 31, 2014
Originally published in the McKinney Courier-Gazette
By Chris Beattie, cbeattie@starlocalmedia.com

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Physical education teachers often point to students’ health as a crucial component to their academic success. They now have the technology that could prove it. McKinney ISD was one of the nation’s first school districts to use Interactive Health Technologies’ Spirit System and PE3 Course program, a corresponding exercise regiment and data analysis that monitor users’ physical activity with a simple swipe.

McKinney High School and Dowell Middle School PE classes use the technology, and the district plans to implement it at another secondary school each year. The integrated program is used by schools in 21 states. Schools in Plano, Richardson and Fort Worth use it, as will 10 Dallas schools in coming months.

 The Spirit System has introduced digital heart rate monitoring into PE. During class exercise, users wear a Spirit Monitor around their chest that alerts them when their heart rate hits their desired zone, drops below their minimum or exceeds their maximum. They scan the monitors on the Spirit Reader before and after class, and the reader transmits data including their heart rate and burned calories to cloud-based software.

Teachers, parents and students receive daily summaries via email or text message plotting the students’ physical activity and heart rate ranges. The system enables individualized health data and compiles it for presentations at the district, state and national levels.

“You get immediate results,” said Jennifer Hodnett, McKinney High School PE coach. “Kids are starting to pay attention. They’ve bought into the system.”

Jen Ohlson, IHT co-founder and president, launched the technology as her PE 3 (“PE for the Mind, Body, Spirit”) curriculum picked up momentum about three years ago. Then a sports reporter, Ohlson directed a documentary, “Health Needs a Hero,” that unveiled more than 1,000 students in San Antonio with a morbidly obese body mass index. Her film spurred PE 3, and its results in reducing BMI prompted education officials to spread the curriculum across Texas.

The web-based software stores and delivers each student’s pre- and post-fitness testing and unlimited assessment measures that can capture attendance, blood pressure or any measurement a school or teacher chooses.

Accurate, objective data regarding each student’s effort and activity level give districts a direct connection to the quality of schools’ PE classes.

“We’re the glue to everything else – the basketballs and jump ropes,” said Ohlson, who was named USA Today’s ‘Colorado Athlete of the Year’ as a high school senior. “[Teachers and coaches] can provide more data with our technology than ever before.”

McKinney ISD used technology funds to purchase the Spirit System, which cost roughly $10,000, said Karin Klemm, the district’s health and PE coordinator. The district has received grant money for its widespread Healthy Zone School status – a Cooper Institute program that empowers schools to improve health. McKinney High is the state’s only high school with the status, a three-year designation shared by 12 other McKinney schools.

The system seems to be paying off. Using the Spirit Monitor, two of Hodnett’s obese PE students registered abnormally high heart rates before class started. Doctors soon realized one had high blood pressure and the other had diabetes.

 “In my mind, it saved those kids’ lives,” Klemm said. “It helps them with lifelong health and wellness.”

IHT has expanded the software to enable schools to also monitor academic measurements like test scores and in-class behavior in an attempt to correlate physical fitness with educational success. Schools began using the new software this week.

Students have their own fitness and academic portfolio; they daily track their progress. Hodnett has seen students’ drop their one-mile-run times by nearly two minutes.

“I’m not in a sport, so it keeps me fit,” said Mackenzie Martinez, McKinney High student. “And it lets me know how I’m doing.”

Ohlson’s vision – shared by educators around the U.S. – is to stimulate health-conscious responsibility that lasts beyond high school. The fight against heart disease, the nation’s leading killer, starts at age 15, not 45, Ohlson said.

By the time students graduate, many will have 10-plus years of their health and academic history in one place. School officials and legislators are gathering potential proof for a tie between physical health and academic achievement.

“We’re trying to be a solution to the problem,” Ohlson said. “For people to really see the value of PE, they need to have the data.”

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