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‘Exergaming’ Blends Tech. and Exercise in Gym Classes

By Michelle R. Davis — April 28, 2008 7 min read

Walking into the gymnasium at California’s Sierra Vista Junior High School is like pole-vaulting into the future of physical education. The school’s main physical education space is filled with high-tech equipment designed to motivate students to work hard, have fun, and get their heart rates up.

When students take physical education classes, they can ride bikes up grueling virtual mountains and along quaint French streets, or even race a friend—all on a screen set up in front of them. Others may choose to test their footwork with Dance Dance Revolution, a video game that instructs students to tap their feet on certain spaces on a pad in intricate and physical choreography. Some students, too, can choose to role play on the game system Xavix, impersonating the action hero Jackie Chan as he races through the streets of Tokyo. The faster the student runs, the faster Chan runs on the screen. The higher the student jumps, the higher Chan leaps into the air.

The Canyon Country, Calif., gymnasium setup is the brainchild of the chairman of the school’s physical education department, George H. Velard, who over four years and with $150,000 garnered through community fundraising has transformed the physical education curriculum into something that students at the school even five years ago would not recognize.

“What we have done to our kids of past generations has been a disservice,” Velard says. “The old P.E. was just for the jocks. How about the other 90 percent of the kids?”

“Exergaming”—or using video games to trigger exercise—is the latest trend in physical education programs, as educators try to get a broader range of students to exercise more regularly and rigorously.

“It’s aligned with our culture,” says Lisa Hansen, the co-director of the University of South Florida’s XRKade Research Lab, based in Tampa. The lab studies the impact of technology-based interactive game activities on children’s physical activities and fitness levels.

“The video-game industry is one of the fastest-growing in the world,” Hansen says. “This is what these kids do.”

Hansen’s studies from the last several years of three 5th grade classes at a Tampa, Fla., elementary school found that students preferred exergaming to traditional physical education. Even when they were permitted to opt out of exercise, all the students studied chose to participate. In addition, the study found that exergaming options got student heart rates higher than traditional exercises, such as jumping rope, which students called boring.

Of course, most physical education teachers and researchers say physical education screen time needs to be used in moderation, and in combination with more conventional exercise programs. Traditional sports that promote coordination, teamwork, and intense exercise shouldn’t fall by the wayside.

“Exergaming should not replace traditional physical activity, which is fabulous. There’s no activity like it,” Hansen says. “But we have so many kids now who are embarrassed in class. They hate P.E.”

‘Students Are Gamers’

Though physical education teachers such as Velard who have ventured into the technological realm stress that they continue to teach traditional sports such as soccer and softball, they say technology is what reaches the current school-age generation. Velard has also used technology to chart the physical fitness of his students, which he says has spiked dramatically since the new, technology-based curriculum was instituted.

Anna Marie Mead leads the physical education department at Conifer High School in the 84,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., school district and is the president of the Colorado Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. She says the video game Dance Dance Revolution has encouraged the less athletic, nontraditional physical education students to get more active in her classes.

“These students are all gamers,” she says. “This generation is so technologically advanced. They’re used to thinking quick with a fast pace and having things changing rapidly.”

Though Dance Dance Revolution is typically a one- or two-person game, with each player using a mat, Mead sometimes hooks the game system to an LCD projector and has the whole class participate, tapping their feet on the gym floor instead of a mat.

“A lot of kids are intimidated by the pads, and we never force kids to get on it,” says Mead, who sometimes has students knocking on her door asking to play the game during lunch and free periods. “You still get a workout on the floor. There are all different ways to modify the activity.”

Brigette Landon, a junior at Conifer High School, says she was always athletic but never good at traditional sports. “It was kind of a bummer,” she says. “I was always picked last for teams.”

She now gets regular aerobic exercise with Dance Dance Revolution. “It’s something I can do that other people might not have the skills to do,” she says of the game, which has different levels, including beginner and competitive. “I think I get a pretty good workout. You’re out of breath when you’re done with it.”

Of course, not all new physical education technology is funneled through gaming. Teachers also use pedometers and heart-rate monitors that can instantly provide feedback on the levels of students’ workouts and graph their heart rates on a chart. Some monitors will beep or blink a light if a student is slacking off.

“I see technology as a motivational tool, for sure,” says Fran Cleland, the president of the Reston,Va.-based National Association for Sport and Physical Education. “And you get some accountable data to show what is actually taking place.”

Cleland cautions, though, that the technology must not be misused. “Even if a video is leading, it’s not a time for the teacher to stay back,” she says. “They should take it further than the video, making sure students have proper alignment and technique.”

‘Getting Up and Working Out’

Other programs, such as Valencia, Calif.-based HOPSports, take technology in a new direction. The program provides participating schools with DVDs that feature professional athletes who lead students through exercises and talk about nutrition and other health issues, such as smoking.

Teachers receive the DVDs and load them onto a computer, where they can access a variety of lessons—everything from kickboxing to yoga, from golf to martial arts. Many of the lessons, which can be displayed on a large screen or a blank wall and are piped through speakers, involve circuit training, using physio balls, mats, and jump ropes. The company currently has 75 different lesson plans and more than two years’ worth of curricula, says its president, Cindy Sisson-Hensley.

“The educator can teach things they might not feel comfortable with. The instructor instructs [on the screen] and the teacher teaches,” Sisson-Hensley says, adding that the HOPSports setup comes with a wireless remote so a teacher can circulate in the class to make sure students use proper technique.

The program is currently used in 25 states in more than 200 locations. Sisson-Hensley says teachers report a decrease in discipline problems and an increase in participation.

A study of the program—conducted by Be Active North Carolina, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing the physical fitness of people in the state, where about 52,000 students use it—found that students were 55 percent more active during classes using HOPSports than traditional physical education, and that overweight and obese students were 23 percent more active using the program than they were in traditional physical education classes. The study looked at 15 schools and five community sites where the program was being used.

“We hear from teachers all the time who say, ‘For the first time, my kids are getting up and working out,’ ” Sisson-Hensley says. “The screen allows for social inhibitions to be reduced. Kids would normally be checking out their peers, but they don’t care because they’re looking at what’s on the wall.”

While Hansen, of the XRKade Research Lab, says that while exergaming should not replace traditional physical activity, and that all screen time for teenagers and youngsters should be limited, exergaming is an excellent option for keeping students active.

“Our kids aren’t moving; they aren’t doing anything,” she says. “If this is something that kids are really going to like and it’s going to encourage them to be active, why not incorporate it?”


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