Originally published Jan. 26, 2018 in the Omaha World-Herald.

By Kelsey Stewart, World-Herald Staff Writer

Gabbi Zuerlein stepped up to one of the five squares of turf placed on the gym floor.

Golf club in hand, she lined up her chip shot. The 15-year-old sent 10 neon golf balls sailing across the gym. After retrieving her shots, she hopped into a two-person conga line and let other students have their turn with golf.

It’s important that the high school sophomore and her classmates don’t stop moving during physical education classes. If they do, the heart rate monitors they wear on their wrists will reflect that later.


Abby O’Connor (left) and Morgan Wright work out during P.E. class at Mercy High School. The Omaha school obtained the heart rate monitors through a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska. Teachers say wearing the monitors during P.E. class prepares students for a lifetime of fitness. Photo by Sarah Hoffman/The World-Herald.

Heart rate monitors are a standard part of curriculum for Mercy High School students like Gabbi. They’re becoming more popular in boutique gyms, and they’re used in a handful of other Omaha area schools.

“When you have these monitors, you have an objective way to look at every student and you know exactly how active they were,” said Chris Dunn, a former physical education teacher who implemented the monitors at Mercy. “We can really make sure we’re getting those kids where they need to be.”

The school started using the devices in August. Mercy received the heart rate monitors through a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska. PE students check out the devices at the beginning of class. The face of the device, worn like a watch, displays heart rate. Lights around the watch face flash blue, yellow and red to signify whether the wearer is achieving her target heart rate. Blue signifies low intensity, yellow is moderate — “That’s where I want them,” Dunn said — and red is vigorous. Users shouldn’t stay in the red level for a prolonged amount of time.

When students return devices at the end of class, their data is pulled up on the computer.

“I feel as though we’ve really just hit the tip of the iceberg with what we can do with these monitors,” Dunn said. “Kids are really excited about seeing they’re in the zone the whole time.”

Teachers say wearing the monitors in class preps students for a lifetime of fitness. The devices teach them what it feels like to hit their target heart rate, so they won’t always need to wear them while they work out.

Hanna Stec works out with her club softball team now. But once her softball career is over, she’ll be on her own for workouts. The 16-year-old junior said knowing how to read her heart rate will be helpful when she works out independently.

“It helps you know when you’re pushing yourself, and it helps you to get a good but safe workout,” Stec said.

To get in the desired heart rate zone, girls began their class with relay races. Other activities included sliding the length of the gym on a wheeled seat, jumping rope and sprinting.


A student reaches for a heart rate monitor at the start of a P.E. class at Mercy. The school began using the devices last August. Photo by Sarah Hoffman/The World-Herald

Some activities required some members of the class to wait their turn on the sideline. To keep their heart rates up while waiting, students used fitness apps on iPads to keep busy. The most popular is an app that leads participants in choreographed dances — hence Gabbi’s conga line.

The monitors are useful for everyday exercise, said Rohan Edmonds, assistant professor of exercise science at Creighton University.

There’s no downside to using one, he said. But people shouldn’t read too much into the numbers if they differ slightly from one day to the next.

The monitors can provide insight into how the body works, he said. A student learns how to track her heart rate during a workout and how quickly her heart rate returns to a resting level.

Papillion-La Vista Community Schools have the devices in both of their high schools and all three middle schools. Teachers fit the devices into courses on a case-by-case basis, a district spokeswoman said.

Omaha Public Schools don’t have a standardized practice of using heart rate monitors, but some schools use the devices.

Educator Mary Buresh’s introduction to a heart rate monitor came in the 1980s when she was in college, and she still uses one during her workouts. Her experience influenced her decision to have her students use them at Bryan High School.

For at least 15 years she’s been using monitors that are worn on the chest in class.

She said the important thing is that students are learning about the intensity of their workouts, and using that information outside school, too.

“I’m a tough teacher and I want them to understand when they get out, the physical exercise does not stop after my class,” Buresh said.

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