Elements to Increase Students' Physical Activity

Everyone agrees that physical activity has a powerful positive influence on emotional stability, physical health and the ability to learn. Every student — whether a natural athlete or not — needs to be physically active. Growing bodies demand it. Preventing childhood obesity demands it. Improving test scores demands it. If you’re serious about wanting to achieve a raised level of physical activity for all students, consider these four elements.

1. Needed: Equipment and Space

John Davids, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP BD+C, principal with the Novi, Mich., office of Fanning Howey, notes three areas that are critical for a successful physical education program. The first is free weights, which are intended for athletes looking to build muscle mass. The second is circuit equipment for both athletes and the general student body. And third is a cardio theater, intended more for general student body use than for athletes.

Davids also notes, “A lot of schools have antiquated or no weight fitness facilities. It’s partly because, when schools were designed in the 1950s and 1960s, the only students who used them were athletes. Now weight fitness is part of the curriculum, and a 1,000-square-foot weight room simply isn’t enough to serve the entire student body.”

Whether schools have the equipment and space needed for physical fitness depends on financial support. And both rural and urban schools find themselves in this predicament. “Unfortunately, the quality of many physical fitness programs are defined by their financial foundation,” says Brian Robinson, MS, ATC, head athletic trainer for Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., and chair of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Secondary School Committee. “Having said that, good physical education teachers are creative and find ways to help students be physically fit in the absence of the facilities and equipment.”

Another factor in whether schools have the space and kind of equipment and space needed for physical fitness depends on the location. Urban schools are landlocked by business and residential areas. They have little to no space for outdoor fields, and students often have to be transported by bus to a nearby park for football practice. On the other hand, suburban and rural schools have plenty of land. “Here in Glenview,” says Robinson, “we have acres and acres for practice and games. About 10 years ago, we added lacrosse to our athletic program.”

While the district had to reconfigure parking lots to create the space required for the sport, Robinson notes that they were fortunate to have both the money and space to do so. “Ultimately,” he sums, “it depends on your priorities. Schools have a way of finding the funds necessary for the things they deem priorities.”

2. Needed: Creative Teachers and Creative Spaces
Tom Oehler, AIA, LEED-AP, director of Operations for SHW Group’s Austin, Texas, office, observes that, funding aside, yes, schools have enough physical space to accommodate students’ needs in terms of physical education. That observation is based on code. He also notes that elementary and middle school students receive physical education in their curriculum, as required by law.

Oehler argues that, if we look beyond code and law, we see that students simply don’t get enough physical activity during the course of their school day. And he agrees with Robinson that creative teachers can help close the gap. “For example, we’ve found a real connection between project-based curriculum where students are free to come and go from the classroom as they would in an office environment and their overall classroom performance.

“Similarly,” Oehler continues, “exer-gaming arenas stimulate physical activity during the day. The size of the space is not important, as long as there is a data connection. Students can compete against other schools locally, nationally or even internationally, receiving both physical activity and the fun of playing a game. It’s a trend we’re starting to see, and it will drive physical education in the future.”

But Oehler also notes that architects are equally responsible for looking for opportunities to increase student engagement. To that end, SHW works to design creative spaces to encourage students to move their bodies. The firm recently completed Gloria Marshall Elementary in Spring, Texas, where every aspect of the school was considered as an opportunity for physical activity. For example, there’s a tree house with a slide in the corridor that is designed as a rewards area. It also has space for engagement in science and math programs. “The school also has a science garden and eco-pond at the front door, intended for science programs and promoting physical activity that students just can’t get sitting in a classroom,” he notes. “That’s thinking beyond being in an athletic program.”

3. Needed: Examples to Follow
Should you find yourself with the funding to make facilities and equipment a higher priority than they already are, here are a handful of successfully completed projects that show a commitment to physical fitness from which you may glean some ideas.

Spring Lake Fitness & Aquatic Center: West Michigan’s first comprehensive health club and indoor water park is an addition to Spring Lake High School, which serves 800 students in grades 9 to 12. The 66,725-square-foot facility is run by the school district, but is open to the community. Amenities include a fully equipped weight room, cardio room, indoor track, 12-person hot tub, sports forum and an eight-lane competition pool with diving well. Completed in 2008, the construction cost was $13.5 million.

Milford High School Sports Complex and Lakeland High School Sports Complexes: In response to evolving athletics programs and community use needs, Huron Valley Schools in Michigan chose to expand both Milford High School and Lakeland High School. Both received the same improvements, some of which included field houses, natatorium complexes, 2,100-seat competition gymnasiums with three-lane elevated running tracks and 5,000-square-foot fitness areas, and tennis court and softball field complexes. Both were completed in 2004. The Milford project cost $23.2 million; the Lakeland project cost $26.5 million.

Coppell Multipurpose Facility:
This facility, now 12 years old, is standing the test of time for Coppell Independent School District in Texas. The 67,808-square-foot facility includes a 50-yard-long synthetic field used by multiple sports and groups. A weight room at the end of the football field is divided by a wall with windows, which allows supervision and the facility to be divided into two areas for use by multiple teams and/or sports. Also included is a retractable batting cage that can be used as a driving range area for the golf team.

4. Needed: Athletic Trainers

According to the Ohio Association of Athletic Trainers (OATA), licensed athletic trainers practice prevention, recognition and assessment of athletic injuries. They provide management, treatment, disposition and reconditioning of acute athletic injuries under a physician’s direction. They make return-to-play decisions. In short, athletic trainers help keep students in school and on the team so that they can achieve their academic potential.

As such, it only makes sense that every school district offering interscholastic sports has at least one athletic trainer on staff. Yet, according to OATA, the reality is that student athletes have regular access to a certified athletic trainer in only about a third of the nation’s high schools with sports programs.

How many athletic trainers should a district have? Robinson recommends at least one per high school. He relates a story of a conversation he had a number of years ago with Ron Corson, director of Sports Medicine for the University of Georgia in Athens. Corson noted that the university had 690 athletes and 19 certified athletic trainers. “Compare that to my district,” says Robinson, “where we have 1,600 athletes and three certified athletic trainers. Corson said, ‘Where have we decided that high school athletes don’t deserve the same care as college athletes?’”

Robin Lensch, AT, ATC, TSCS, head athletic trainer for Kettering City Schools in Ohio, and sub-chair of the membership Committee of the Ohio Athletic Trainers Association, answers the question in a similarly thoughtful manner. “It’s a funding question, and funding is pretty tough to come by in smaller districts,” she points out. “For example, a couple of years ago in Southeast Ohio, we had 41 athletic trainers across a 10-county area. Compare that to the 100 trainers we had in the Dayton metro area. If a district has the money to hire a science teacher or an athletic trainer, administrators have to prioritize their needs.”

Physical activity has a powerful positive influence on emotional stability, physical health and the ability to learn. And that activity can’t be eliminated but must, in fact, be increased — with no excuses. “While cutting physical education and athletics in schools may seem to provide short-term financial benefits to a district,” Lensch observes, “those cuts will dramatically increase the growing health issue of obesity in children. In addition, school districts must take into account the benefits of physical activity on a student’s ability to focus on schoolwork, manage his/her time and learn valuable social lessons. I believe that a relatively small investment in healthy choices now will stop the downward spiral that our communities are heading toward.”