How wearable technology can personalize physical education

PE teachers are motivating students by personalizing exercise with wearable technology such as Fitbits, Apple Watches and Polar sensors.

In an effort to motivate students to improve their health, some physical education teachers now personalize exercise with wearables such as Fitbits, Apple Watches and Polar sensors.

“For some students, a wearable piece of technology or interaction with a tablet certainly increases their motivation, and helps them participate in more physical activity,” says Chris Hersl, vice president for programs and professional development for SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators. 

PE teachers typically purchase a classroom set of fitness wearables that students use during exercise sessions to track the time spent at a target heart rate.

“We don’t want it to be a competition, like who can get the most steps,” Hersl says. “Instead, we hope the wearables will help students realize they need to be physically active every day, and help them in the process of setting fitness goals, which are individual.”

Wearable technology creates ‘lifelong movers’

At Macatawa Bay Middle School, part of West Ottawa Public Schools in Michigan, physical wellness educator Carrie Lehocky received a $2,200 district grant to buy Polar OH1 bracelet sensors. Her students used them for the first time this past school year.

“It shifted our mindset; instead of being focused on sports, we’re more focused on fitness,” Lehocky says. “This is a tool to help that.”

Each student must now create their own fitness plan centered on an activity that gets their heart rate in a target zone for at least 30 minutes.

“The big focus is to motivate them to be lifelong movers,” Lehocky says. “Not every kid is going to grow up to be an athlete, but every kid needs to know how to better their health and enjoy fitness.”

Macatawa Bay students can work out in the weight room, create their own games or participate in a sport, so long as the activity keeps up their heart rate.

Teachers project each student’s heart rate on a screen when indoors, or on a tablet when outdoors. Students are identified by name or by number, for anonymity.

Next year, Lehocky says she plans to spend more time helping students create individual workout plans based on their goals, such as losing weight, building muscle or increasing speed.

Objective feedback

Wearables provide objective data that educators can use to evaluate students’ health, says Marty Reese, PE teacher at Bay View Elementary in Washington’s Burlington-Edison School District.

This year, Reese supplied each of the district’s five schools with about 30 Heart Zones armbands. During PE class, students wear armband sensors that project heart rates onto a TV screen, and educators get instant feedback on how hard the students are working.

One challenge is using wearables in a developmentally appropriate way, says Hersl, of Shape America.

“Tech can be useful in helping students understand the concept they’re learning, such as intensity or goal setting,” Hersl says. “Simply using a tracking device to see who ran the fastest would not be an appropriate practice in a PE class. We recognize that all students are different and work at individual levels.”

Data privacy concerns

Districts typically set their own data policies and work with wearables vendors to meet those standards, says Chris Hersl, vice president for programs and professional development for SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators. Teachers can use wearables for instructional purposes without storing any data, he adds.

At Macatawa Bay Middle School in Michigan, students’ personal information—including name, birthdate and gender—is recorded, along with their heart rate. Physical wellness educator Carrie Lehocky can access each student’s activity log to view their heart rate. Students receive their own login and password as well. Once students move on to high school, all the data will be deleted from the system, Lehocky says.

At Bay View Elementary in Washington, the IT department helps teachers delete data each year, says PE teacher Marty Reese.

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