PE emphasis shifts from competition to basic fitness

PE classes are less about competition and more about fitness.  Credit: Simon Bruty/Allsport

Gone are the days of competing to run the fastest mile or pushing for the most sit-ups.

In some school districts, physical education is no longer even called "P.E."

The class that once intimidated the less athletic kids has changed its focus. Instead of only teaching students how to play sports, the emphasis is now on healthy living, said Karen Cowan, educational services fitness and health coordinator for Spokane Public Schools.

Students now use heart-rate monitors, exercise bands and other equipment to help them learn how to stay in shape. Rather than race each other to get the fastest time, students are encouraged to work to reach a target heart-rate zone.

"Instead of trying to make athletes, we're trying to teach kids how to develop a plan to stay fit," said Dan Farley, health and fitness teacher at Finch Elementary.

This shift in focus, along with changes four years ago in the health and fitness curriculum, helped the district garner nearly $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Education.

The money, which will be used primarily to buy state-of-the art equipment, was awarded to 18 school districts nationwide out of about 500 that applied. District 81 was one of only three in the western United States to get the award, and the only district in Washington state.

Some of District 81's elementary and secondary schools already have computer software, pedometers and other tools for training.

One of them is Finch Elementary in northwest Spokane, where fourth- graders during a recent health and fitness class used new equipment to circuit-train for roughly 15 minutes.

To the beat of '70s rock music, they circled the gym by working out at 15 different stationsjumping rope, somersaults on padded mats, running in place on mini trampolines. Special education students also participated with the help of an aide.

The music stopped every 50 seconds. "Rotate," Farley yelled, and the kids moved to the next station in pairs.

Posted around the gym were signs, each one with a message that focused on self-improvement as opposed to competition: "Doing your best is more important than being the best," and "Champions are the ones who get the most out of themselves."

After the workout, students with the heart-rate monitors checked out their statshow many beats per minute and how long they kept up that rate.

Kids their age should aim for 140-to-190 beats per minute, Farley said. "This is where your body builds muscle and burns fat," he told the 22 fourth-graders sitting on the gym floor.

P.E. has changed significantly since Farley first started teaching the subject 20 years ago, he said. Although they still play volleyball and other sports, he also teaches them about nutrition and other aspects of fitness, including flexibility and muscular strength.

Fourth-graders now learn words such as "aerobic" and "cardiovascular."

Farley also encourages them to stay active by varying the activities during the half-hour class twice-a-week.

Only about 15 percent of elementary school students end up playing high school sports, he said. Health risks are also a concern since 25 percent of children are either overweight or obese, according to a 1998 study from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

That's why it's important to make health and fitness both educational and fun for all kids, Farley said. A longtime coach, Farley tells his kids to see him as their personal trainer and to pretend the Finch gym is just like 24-Hour Fitness.

"I like this a lot," said 9-year-old Casey Russell, whose favorite circuit training station involves dribbling the basketball around cones. "I get to have fun and I stay healthy."

Grades for this class are based on a number of factors, including participation and a student's ability to reach her or his target heart rate.

About one-third of District 81's elementary and secondary schools have already implemented the revamped health and fitness program. All the schools should be on board within five years.

Students "need to know how to work hard, not if they're the fastest or slowest," Cowan said. "(The new program) is very motivating for them. They try harder and they improve."

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