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Not your mama's gym class

Physical education teachers are using innovative ways to battle the obesity crisis

Jacque Wilson | 1/30/2014, 10:40 a.m.
It's been called the fourth "R" of education: reading, writing, arithmetic and now, aerobics.
Matthew Pomeroy is a PE teacher at Merton Intermediate School in Merton, Wisconsin. He offers students a choice every day: They can play volleyball or do yoga; they can practice archery or work out in the weight room. Zumba. CrossFit. Geocaching. Tabata. Spinning. All these and more are offered to encourage students to move. Credit: Courtesy Matthew Pomeroy

— Pomeroy's class uses iPads to analyze their archery or free throw techniques. With an app called Coach's Eye, they record videos of their shot, then play it back while discussing their form. Pomeroy has also split his class into groups to create their very own workout videos -- recording these at home is easier for some students than performing live in front of their peers, he says.

Many schools provide pedometers and heart rate monitors for students, Vaandering says. When she taught elementary PE, she encouraged her students to increase the number of steps they took during every class.

"You'd see their little feet moving while we're giving instructions because they want to get more steps," she says with a laugh.

Pomeroy has taken technology even further, using it to connect his students with others across the globe. In one instance he teamed up with a PE teacher in the United Kingdom to pull off an international dance team competition via Skype. Another time, his students gave jump rope lessons to their peers abroad.

"Sometimes for phys ed, you just need to get out of the gym," Pomeroy says.

Stress

Perhaps one of the biggest differences Vaandering sees in students today is high levels of stress. An overemphasis on standardized tests and budget cuts has removed important stress outlets such as art class and PE in some schools, she says. A few districts in Oregon have even cut recess for elementary school.

"That's so not in line with brain research and what science tells us about a child's learning (process)," Vaandering says. "In reality there needs to be a balance and a respect for the whole child."

Some schools are getting the message that stress reduction is an important part of a child's overall well-being. They're incorporating yoga and meditation, Muller says, while educating the mind, body and spirit.

In health class at Dwight-Englewood, students are offered the opportunity to use apps like Calm.com, which provides a soothing screen and sounds in timed blocks to calm the mind.

"It's amazing how much better you feel after two minutes," Muller says.

What you can do

Parents play a big role in their children's success at school, Vaandering says, whether it's in math class or gym class.

"It really is important to do family activities," she says. "Enjoying each other's company, going hiking, playing pickleball on the weekend."

Pomeroy agrees. "You can make such a great connection with your kids through physical activity."

What does your family do to stay fit? Share your tips and learn from other parents on Friday at 1 p.m. ET with @CNNHealth and celebrity trainer David Kirsch. Use the hashtag #FitFamilies to join in the conversation on Twitter.