Physical education majors at Buena Vista University are learning how to use heart-rate monitors as a tool to assist them in designing an effective curriculum to improve the health and fitness of students they will be teaching in their future K-12 PE classes.
The devices are also being used by several members of the BVU track team during training to help them improve their athletic performance.
Bev Ahern, assistant professor of exercise science, says BVU has partnered with Interactive Heart Technologies (IHT) of Austin, Texas, to give PE majors and student-athletes a close-up look at how the company's heart-rate monitors can be used effectively in an academic setting.
Ahern was contacted by IHT through connections she had developed when she was a PE teacher in the Spencer Community School District where she had implemented use of another brand of heart-rate monitor.
"My personal goal is that every one of our future BVU physical education teachers understands how to take responsible cardio tests and be able to read the heart-rate data so they know how well their lessons are meeting the individual health needs of their students," says Ahern.
BVU's long-distance runners have been the first student-athletes on campus to utilize the devices in their workouts. Coach Jeff Brennan, head track coach, works with the individual athletes to set heart-rate target zones for their training. The targets are programmed into the monitors for each training session and give instant feedback to the athletes during workouts by beeping when the heart rate exceeds or falls below the target zones. Following the workout, the monitors are scanned on a reader connected to Ahern's laptop computer to display a graph showing how the individual runner performed. The readouts can then be e-mailed to Brennan and the athlete, and also sent to smartphones.
"The heart-rate monitors give us a tool to evaluate our workouts and each individual athlete which I see as a huge advantage," says Brennan. "It is easy to run at an easy tempo every day, but we have up-tempo workouts, lactic threshold workouts, intervals, long runs and so on. Now we can show an athlete what it takes to get his or her body into an actual heart-rate zone to see benefits from the desired workouts. The potential for this is unlimited with all of our athletes, particularly with our distance and mid-distance program. In cross country next fall, we plan to use the monitors daily."
Students in two of Ahern's education classes are learning to use the monitors. One class is learning to incorporate the monitors into lesson design for PE classes they will be teaching in the future to help improve the health and fitness of their students. The other class is using the monitors as a health assessment tool. BVU has 16 of the heart rate monitors.
One of the advantages of the IHT heart-rate monitor is that the device is one piece of equipment instead of two, says Ahern, with no buttons to push or break. The computer chip is contained in the chest strap. "As a former high school teacher, I know it is extremely helpful to have fewer pieces to maintain and keep track of for your program," she notes.
"Through the use of this technology, Bev Ahern is putting us on the cutting edge of physical education in this country," says Dr. Paul Theobold, dean of the School of Education. "And what's more, she's helping to position BVU's School of Education to play a leadership role in a larger conversation about the connection between physical well-being and academic performance in all school subjects."
Ahern's experience using heart-rate monitors at the Spencer schools has made her a believer in their value as health and fitness improvement tools. "When we have good data on what is really happening with students, we have the information we need as educators to make sure our PE lessons are designed in a meaningful way," she says. "Every PE lesson should have a time period for students to warm up, a time to build muscle and strength so they have a strong immune system, a time for a moderate level of activity and then a proper cool down period which helps prepare the brain for better learning."
Ahern's physical education students will also take monitors to use when they do their student teaching. Data from the monitors will enable Ahern to evaluate the actual physical activity of the kids that her students are teaching. Understanding how to use heart-rate monitors and interpret the data could also give BVU's future PE educators a competitive edge in the job market, she adds.
In the PE profession, the greater goal is improvement in the health and fitness of today's youth in the wake of a national epidemic of obesity. Studies demonstrate that exercise has a beneficial impact on cognition, and properly designed fitness programs in schools have been shown to contribute to improvement in academic achievement and reduction in disciplinary problems, notes Ahern.
Ahern says that parents of children who have Type II diabetes — which can be controlled by proper diet and exercise — can also benefit when their children use heart-rate monitors because they can get an e-mailed report and see if their child is getting proper exercise in school.
Dr. David Evans, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, says "Professor Ahern's deployment of heart-rate monitors shows her commitment to create real-world learning opportunities for our students, and in this case these learning opportunities have a clear and direct result in improved performance for student-athletes and hands-on, advanced experience for students who will become teachers responsible for the physical education of their students. Her work on this project creates a range of opportunities for BVU to support enhanced community wellness and extends our positive impact in a new and exciting way."
Jen Ohlson, president of IHT, says, "We are thrilled to be a partnering with BVU to support and enhance efforts to teach, assess and build a comprehensive PE and health model for the 21st century at the university level. The negative trends we collectively face in this nation in regard to childhood physical inactivity demand improvements in physical education within our schools. BVU is leading the way to solve these issues."