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A high-tech way to monitor fitness


It's one thing to be told or read that kicking your heart rate up with regular exercise is a healthy, good thing, but if you're like most youngsters these days, experiencing how and why should prove more interesting.

To illustrate, you might grasp intellectually that shooting baskets is better exercise than, say, typing.

But to see what happens to your heart on a screen as you shoot, or sit, makes the point vivid and personal.

Thus, physical education administrators in the Howard County school system began phasing in this month new computer equipment intended to make kids better understand what can - and can't - build and sustain fitness for a lifetime.

All elementary, middle and high schools are getting laptops to help track fitness levels. Elementary schools are getting pedometers to measure steps. Middle and high schools are getting heart-rate monitors. The sensors take measurements to more sophisticated levels for children. High school students, for instance, will discover how activity burns calories.

The gear has been purchased with a one-time grant of $479,000 from the federally administered Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress program, which is intended to improve students' grasp of why fitness matters throughout life.

The national initiative stems from trying to control the rapidly growing numbers of overweight children in this country. So sizable are the numbers, federal health officials argue, that expensive public health problems loom as that young population grows into adulthood.

About 150 physical education teachers in the county are getting in-service training in how to use the new gear, and a few have started using the program they've dubbed "Bodies and Minds on the Move."

"It's a lot easier than having them stop, finding the pulse, and then counting your pulse rate," said Ron Somerville, a physical education teacher at Mount View Middle School in Marriottsville. "It's made this unit much more enjoyable for the children. You can tell they're focusing on the monitor, because they understand that if it's not beeping, you're dead."

Somerville's pupils track their heart rates while traversing a series of play stations.

Each has a different activity: dribbling a basketball, shooting baskets while riding a small scooter, playing table tennis, jumping rope, bouncing a "z-ball" (which rebounds erratically because of its odd shape), trying badminton, passing a volleyball, shooting a lacrosse ball, running across a stage and sitting in front of the laptop to watch the heart rate slump.

The idea, Somerville said, is for children to discover how various activities can elevate the heart rate.

"The idea is to show that there's something for everyone, and not just the athletes, that can make fitness fun," said Marlene Dugan, a longtime volleyball coach and physical education teacher in the county school system who is helping teachers learn to use the equipment.

Elaine Lindsay, a former national physical education teacher of the year at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County and now a University of Maryland faculty member in kinesiology, told county high school teachers last week that "students learn they can make adjustments in what they're doing, just as long as they keep the heart rate in their own target zone long enough to make a difference."

The "target zone" is the beats a minute the heart can safely work above its normal, sedentary pace.

It is an individual variable related to one's age and conditioning, regardless of whether the participant is a teen-ager or senior citizen.

Sharon Warren, an Illinois teacher working with the company that makes the heart monitors, said the equipment "shows that physical fitness is not about pain and running, that you can find a healthy heart level doing lots of things, from skateboarding to dancing to just walking."

Attaining the grant was achieved under the supervision of Jackie French, the county school system's instructional facilitator for physical education and dance.

"This is a lot of money," she said, "more than we could get in 10 years of trying to arrange funding from the department. ... [But it is important] because most kids aren't athletes, so the focus is to help them find skills that they can do for the rest of their lives to enhance their health."

Teachers will begin collecting data this fall, French said, adding that sending fitness reports home with students could come later. It's already being done in California, and Frederick County has a similar report.

"In California in 2001," said French, "they found that students who passed fitness standards did better overall in math and reading. It's what those of us in physical education have said for years, that what we do isn't just for the body; it applies to academics, as well."

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