“Ms. Moore, Ms. Moore, my pedometer is counting backwards,” exclaims one student as they rush into physical education teacher Donna Moore’s office Thursday, just two days after receiving their custom step counter.
“Maybe you are reading the numbers backwards,” Moore says.
“Look how many steps I took — look,” a Julia Randall kindergarten student exclaims as she twists her head to read the numbers from the shiny, black box snapped to her waistband.
All around Moore, students proudly flashed their counters. Moore laughs, noting how seriously and responsibly students are taking the district’s newest fitness challenge funded by a federal grant.
Through May, physical education teachers will follow the progress of student steps with pedometers, handed out Jan. 25 to every elementary student and those middle and high school students participating in gym.
With some 1,800 pedometers, the district hopes to follow student activity over four- and seven-day collection periods and then to use that data to encourage healthy walking habits.
Currently, nearly half of Payson’s elementary school students have a weight problem, with 35 percent of fifth-graders overweight and another 18 percent obese, according to data complied by the Payson Unified School District (PUSD) athletic department.
Through a $1.4 million federal PEP grant, the district is expanding its physical education program to slim down student waistlines and improve its nutrition education programs. The pedometers are the first of many tools the district plans to incorporate into its physical education program.
Over the next three years, the district will add innovative and high-tech tools, including a ropes adventure course, Wii and Xavix gaming systems, Dance Dance Revolution, a video dance game and bicycles that students pedal through video games.
Most schools will also receive in-line skates, rowing equipment and yoga mats.
In K-5, the P.E. program has expanded from once a week to twice with money from the grant. The district has also bought FitnessGram, an assessment tool that provides kids with data sheets revealing their fitness level.
This is the third time Moore has applied for the PEP grant and the first time the district received money. Only one other Arizona school district was approved this year.
Moore said she is working on another grant that would fund a rollaway 9-hole golf course for Julia Randall Elementary School.
All of the equipment is designed to get students moving.
Where dodgeball and track used to cut it, students these days need more high-tech tools to get motivated, Moore said.
“They are so into TV and video games these days,” she said. “We teach to what they are into.”
In the past, P.E. was geared toward the athlete, with traditional sports emphasized. Unfortunately, this excluded many students, with staggering results. In 2009, an estimated 27 percent of Americans were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A study by the American College of Sports Medicine revealed that adults in the United States take fewer steps per day than adults living in Switzerland, Australia and Japan. Researchers concluded that low walking levels are contributing to the high rate of adult obesity in the United States.
“The only way to reverse the obesity trend is to start with our kids,” she said.
Moore encourages students to get at least 60 minutes of activity a day. Jumping on a trampoline and playing tag counts just as much as jogging or playing basketball.
In Moore’s P.E. classes, she emphasizes having fun, not being the best.
“I tell all my students, ‘If you had fun, you won,’” she said.
While the district amps up its program over the next three years, it will also report how the grant money is paying off.
On top of tracking students’ steps, students are also required to keep a food and physical activity log for each day they wear the pedometer.
The logs not only track if student habits are improving, but also alerts students to their current lifestyle.
“We don’t want them to go out and change anything yet, we want to see where they are,” she said.
Many students have already reported to Moore that they did not realize they were eating so few fruits and vegetables or moving so little.
“It really alerts kids to if they are getting 60 minutes of activity a day,” she said.
Several parents have called Moore after realizing their child was not eating one fruit or vegetable a day.
One woman said fruits and vegetables were not part of their household.
After filling out the food log, the woman’s son asked if they could go to the grocery store and try new vegetables.
“He said, ‘Mom, I think we should try some of these,’” Moore said. “So this program isn’t just impacting our school, this is our whole community.”
Moore hopes that at the end of the three years, students, their families and the whole community will be healthier.
“We have the data to make a difference,” she said.
The district will reveal results from the pedometer tests in January 2012.
Plans for a ropes course for high and middle school students is in the works. Construction on an adventure course is scheduled for completion by September although students will not get on the equipment until the end of the 2012 school year.
“It is not a jungle gym,” Moore said.
The course will feature low and high elements, including a tower that requires a belay and harness for safety. The course will increase teamwork and personal responsibility.
“It really teaches patience and respect,” Moore said, “and those things are lacking in our society.”
Through various climbing structures, students will have to work together to finish a challenge. In some challenges, classmates will hold a student’s life in their hands.
“The bond they create in an adventure course is amazing,” she said. “They truly understand the importance of ‘we.’”
Once completed, the district plans to rent the course out for corporate events and to other schools.
The district will also add heart rate monitors at the high school. Students will have the opportunity to download an EKG of their heart activity during P.E. class and see how their heart is functioning.
While high school and middle school P.E. classes are still mainly sport-based, the district is working on adding new activities that target all students. Rowing machines connected to the Internet will allow students to compete with the student next to them or with anyone else in the world.
Moore is also working on getting more grant funding.
“I just submitted for another $10,000 grant, so the money is out there,” she said. “I am not one to sit back and wait.”
Moore emphasized PEP grant funding cannot supplement any other district program or position.
While the PUSD is planning to close Frontier Elementary School and riff several positions to close a growing deficit, “This grant was written exclusively for P.E.,” she said.