Skateboarding, rock climbing, ultimate Frisbee, training for a triathlon — those aren't exactly activities you would expect to find in a traditional high school gym class, but they're becoming more common as students get more choices in their physical education.
Don't expect to find students tossing a Frisbee across the school auditorium, however. Gym class is going online, with students using the Internet to get phys-ed credit for the sports and activities they love.
Virtual classes at the high school level are nothing new. Students use the Web to discuss reading assignments, take math quizzes and practice foreign languages with multimedia clips from native speakers.
But online gym classes?
Web-based physical education classes are cropping up across the country — and they're getting rave reviews from educators, parents and students.
Minneapolis' school system is one of the first school districts in the country to offer online gym classes. The program requires students to pick physical activities they enjoy and do each one for 30 minutes, three times a week.
Participants keep online journals and must have parents or coaches certify that they completed their workouts. At the end of the semester, students take fitness tests designed to root out anyone who might have slacked off.
Frank Goodrich, 39, an online P.E. teacher for the Minneapolis public-school district, says that overall, the response to the program has been positive. Every week, he fields calls from educators and administrators across the country interested in starting similar programs.
One main reason for the interest in online gym courses, he says, is that students are under more pressure to perform academically to get into college. That sometimes means squeezing physical education classes out of their schedules in favor of resume-builders such as advanced-placement science and English courses.
"Parents and students now have a way to meet that requirement in a flexible way, without having to drop other classes they are taking," Goodrich said.
The number of students passing Goodrich's online class is about the same — 80 percent — as the pass rate in his live class. Still, Goodrich, who has been teaching P.E. for 15 years, says that the online program isn't a replacement for live classes.
"Online courses or distance learning is not necessarily for everyone," Goodrich said. "We have had a great success in our online phy-ed courses, but at the same time, I think that reflects the fact that we are getting ... some of our more motivated academic students."
Arizona's Primavera Online High School has a different approach to accountability: At the end of each day, it requires students to upload readings from a heart monitor to instructors.
Students in Primavera's program first meet in person with the school's instructor, who does a personal fitness assessment based on their body type, body weight, age and sex.
The school then assigns them state-of-the-art heart-rate monitors that each student wears during his or her hour of physical activity. Data from the monitors are uploaded at the end of each day.
Laura Young, a spokeswoman for Primavera, says that much like Minneapolis' program, students are free to choose almost any physical activity, as long as it will elevate baseline heart rates into a zone that will produce cardiovascular benefits.
Both Young and Goodrich say their students have been creative in their selection of physical activities, which include skateboarding, rock climbing, equestrian, ultimate Frisbee and training for a triathlon.
"A lot of students feel alienated by a lot of the competitive sports. There are lots of students that I've come across that don't like to having to 'suit up' and don't like to have the whole locker-room experience," Young said. "This gives them the ability to be in control of their own fitness."
Today's physical educators, Young and Goodrich agreed, are turning away from the traditional focus on competitive team sports and concentrating on activities that will promote personal and lifelong fitness regimens.
A New Approach
Certainly, gym class has been the bane of many students' school days for time immemorial. Today, however, it's the schools that are scaling back physical education.
The latest "Youth Risk Behaviors Surveillance," issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every other year, found that only 55.7 percent of U.S. high school students attended a physical-education class at least one day a week.
Although the overall proportion of students enrolled in P.E. has remained stable over the past two decades, many high schools have quietly rolled back the amount of time students spend in gym classes.
Today, only 28.4 percent of high schoolers attend a daily P.E. class, down from 41.6 percent in 1991.
And while health experts continue to be concerned about the reduction in gym classes, they concede that virtual fitness classes may help fill that gap.
The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, an advocacy group for physical education in schools, has not taken an official stand on online physical education. But Dolly Lambdin, 54, a spokeswoman for the group, says that given the declining state of health in the country, anything that promotes a non-sedentary lifestyle is helpful.
"Certainly the reduction of physical education has hurt us, because children burn fewer calories and move less than when they had that time during their day that was structured for that," Lambdin said. "Because we've become more sedentary in all other areas in our lives, having a daily time structured into [our] day to be active is more important then it ever was in the past."
Over the past two and a half decades, the percentage of adolescents considered overweight has skyrocketed from 5 to 15 percent. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in October predicts the 90 percent of men and 70 percent of women in the United States will eventually become overweight.
Educators say that P.E. classes are part of Americans' first line of defense in the battle against expanding waistlines.
"As physical educators, we want people to be active not only now, but for the rest of their lives," Goodrich said. "Students, being able choose those activities that they are doing, often times are choosing fitness activities that people would choose for the rest of their lives."