After Nine Months of Remote Learning, Minnesota Students Rely on Technology to Rediscover the Benefits of Exercise and Fitness
Real-time feedback from their IHT ZONE wrist heart rate monitors drives Little Falls Middle School (Minn.) physical education students to realize how hard they have to work to improve their health and fitness after going nine months without face-to-face instruction from their teachers.
“We were distance learning until January (2021),” said PE teacher Nick Abbott. “When we came back, it was a big shock to everyone. Other teachers noticed that many of our students were heavier than when they were last on campus (prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020). It’s been a process, but we’re getting back to a routine and getting after it.”
Since students returned to campus, Abbott and teaching partner Leanne Grosso have alternated using the school’s IHT ZONE heart rate monitors with their students. Between them, roughly 200 sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders wear the heart rate monitors to improve their fitness during PE class. For many students, Abbott said, the class is the first time they’ve thought about fitness at all.
“The concept of fitness is kind of foreign,” he said. “It’s a new topic for many here. Our big push is to get (students) moving somehow, anyhow.”
Using the IHT ZONE monitors gives students a look at what’s happening with their heart rate.
“It’s nice because the monitors are right there and they can easily see the color,” Grosso said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on and the reason they need to improve. It’s been a great motivator.”
Beyond the motivation, students also ask the teachers plenty of questions throughout the class. The data from the heart rate monitors helps the teachers frame their individual conversations, which increases student engagement.
‘This is Science Talking’
The heart rate monitors allow Abbott and Grosso to engage with the students who need it the most. By showing students exactly what’s going on with them specifically, they’ve been able to convince them that working hard – whatever that means for each student – brings positive results.
“Everybody’s version of hard work is so different,” Abbott said. “With this, we have an objective tool that we can use. This is science talking and you have much more to give yourself. I like to direct things that way. ‘You owe this to yourself, to your own health.’”
The students are listening, digesting information, and asking more questions. They often stop Abbott or Grosso in the middle of a session to show them their heart rate monitor and ask questions.
“It’s mostly been the kids who are lacking a little bit of fitness,” Abbott said. “That’s interesting, but maybe these are the kids who need the feedback more.”
And the teachers are eager to provide that feedback. A student’s question, Abbott said, does two things. First, it shows the teacher that the student is engaged and interested in improving. Second, it’s an opportunity for Abbott to introduce new concepts that can further increase the student’s desire to work hard.
“This opens doorways,” he said. “When they ask questions, now I can look at that as an opportunity. Not only am I going to answer that, but wait there’s more! There’s going to come a time where there isn’t a coach helping you get in shape with a whistle and doing drills. If you can learn to understand heart rate and the thresholds, it can help improve your life, too.”
Bringing Heart Rate Monitors to Students
Grosso’s spent the past several years building Little Falls’ inventory of heart rate monitors. She won a grant from the Little Falls Education Foundation to get started with just four monitors in 2019. The early results enabled her to win two more grants, including one from the Flyer Athletic Boosters, and the teachers added to that with a portion of their annual budget to get to 28 monitors that they share.
Seeing the students embrace wearing the monitors and benefit from the feedback they provide makes Grosso’s efforts worthwhile.
“They are seeing the results and they are feeling it,” she said. “We’ve always stressed heart rate but have always had to do it manually. Having the monitors and being able to show kids what they are doing in class has been amazing and fun to see.”
Changing Student Behaviors
In rural Minnesota, Abbott understood that many students didn’t have a space they could effectively exercise in during the first part of winter. That made getting back to work once students returned to campus in January that much more important. The teachers knew students would struggle early on and tried to keep the long-term benefits in front of them as motivation.
“We tell the kids ‘listen, it’s going to be uncomfortable when (you are working hard), but after (the workout), you’re going to feel great,’” he said.
To get students moving, Abbott and Grosso focused on different types of activities that students could choose:
- walking stairs in the gymnasium or around campus
- walking or running on the track
- playing games that encouraged movement
“We’ll give the kids a choice where they can walk steps, walk the track or go for a jog,” Abbott said. “They choose steps. We all know that if you walk steps for 15 minutes straight, your legs will start to burn and the heart rate goes up. It makes for a very good talking point.”
Abbott said allowing students the choice enabled them to find things they prefer to do for exercise. That’s one of the first steps in making fitness – and physical activity – a habit.
One student has done exactly that.
“His body type doesn’t lend itself to being physically active, but I have seen him with the monitor and getting out on the track and working,” Abbott said. “He dropped more than two and a half minutes off of his time on a specific run that we do and he’s all smiles.”
Beyond the smiles on campus, the student has added more physical activity into his life at home.
“He said he’s been doing some walking at home and now he’s starting to do some other things,” Abbott said. “He said now they walk down to the river to go fishing instead of taking the car. Even though that doesn’t sound like a Jack LaLanne success story, that’s exactly what we want to see. Hopefully, that plants a little seed with that family.”
It’s definitely encouraged Abbott (Grosso is retiring from teaching at the end of the school year) to push forward with his plan to use the heart rate monitors to keep students coming back for more hard work in PE.
“Kids get to participate at the level they are at and I think that’s been a big piece for us,” he said. “With the monitors, I’ve found that more kids are willing to put themselves out there and figure out what is hard work.”