A new approach to traditional high school gym class dramatically increases how often teens exercise outside of school.
Researchers at Ohio State and Denison universities developed and tested the new program in which students at a rural Ohio high school learned how create a personalized exercise program. The students spent one gym class each week learning the skills necessary for planning a lifelong exercise program.
Nearly half of the students said that they spent no time exercising outside of school prior to beginning the program. That number dropped to less than one in 10 students once the program ended.
“Traditional gym classes don't work for many students,” said Rick Petosa, a study co-author and an associate professor of physical activity and educational services at Ohio State. “Sports-based physical education does not increase physical activity outside of school.”
The new approach to gym class, called “Planning to be Active,” was developed by Petosa and Brian Hortz, an assistant professor of physical education at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
“Most current physical education research focuses on increasing the number of minutes of physical activity in the classroom,” Hortz said. “Instead of exercising during class time, we had students spend their time thinking about, planning and analyzing their approach to exercise outside of the classroom.”
The results appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The study included 143 students from the same high school – the intervention school – to participate in the new program. An additional 97 students from a neighboring high school served as a comparison group – Hortz did not present the new program to these students.
Students at both schools attended physical education classes five days a week, where the emphasis was on learning the skills necessary to participate in sports.
Each week for eight weeks, Hortz met with the students at the intervention school during one gym class period.
During these lessons the students learned how to develop their own personal exercise plan. For example, some students planned to exercise with family and friends, while other students chose to exercise alone.
“The program encouraged students to plan the way that they preferred to be active,” Hortz said.
The intervention group participated in sport-related activities during their other daily gym classes.
All students were asked to keep a seven-day record of how often they exercised outside of normal school hours (between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.) They kept these written records at two different times – one week before the program started and the week after the program ended. A 30-minute exercise session counted as a workout for a day.
At the beginning of the study, nearly half of the students (46.9 percent) participating in the intervention program said they spent no time exercising outside of school.
By the end of the study, that shrank to less than one in 10 students (9.1 percent.) Walking, bicycling and small group games, such as three-on-three basketball, were among the top activities students participated in during their leisure time.
“These findings suggest that the program encouraged sedentary students to become active,” Petosa said. “Exercise doesn't have to be a strenuous, heart-pounding, sweat-inducing session that leads to exhaustion. In fact, research shows significant health benefits can be gained when a sedentary person becomes moderately active.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that teenagers get 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each day. Walking briskly, which many students in this study said that they did, qualifies as moderate exercise.
By the end of the study, the students from the intervention group increased the number of days they exercised to nearly three days (2.94 days), up from 0.89 days at the study's beginning. The comparison group only increased their work out frequency by half a day, from 1.34 days to 1.81 days.
The number of students who worked out at a moderate pace four or more days a week increased eight-fold (from 4.2 percent to 33.6 percent.)
“We conducted the study from January to March, when it was most convenient for the school systems in the study,” Hortz said. “The slight rise in activity among students in the comparison group may be due to the fact that the weather improved, making it more conducive to exercising outdoors.”
Hortz and Petosa are continuing their collaboration, and are currently evaluating the program in about a half-dozen high schools this school year.
“Physical activity starts to decline during adolescence and continues to do so throughout adulthood,” Hortz said. “We're trying to help change students' attitudes toward physical activity. This program lets them exercise whenever, however and wherever they want to.”
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