Schools tap federal grants to buy fitness equipment for PE

PE class is no longer about standing in the outfield or waiting for a turn at kickball. With the new PE, kids have the chance to hop on a treadmill, lift weights, take step classes, or track improvement with a heart rate monitor -- thanks partly to a federal grant program that just awarded its fourth round of grants, this year to the tune of $69 million.
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PE class is no longer about standing in the outfield or waiting for a turn at kickball. With the new PE, kids have the chance to hop on a treadmill, lift weights, take step classes, or track improvement with a heart rate monitor -- thanks partly to a federal grant program that just awarded its fourth round of grants, this year to the tune of $69 million.

"It used to be all sports-focused," said Phil Lawler, a PE4Life Institute director and middle school PE teacher in Naperville, Ill. "Schools built facilities for athletics, not for fitness. But that's changing. We can get up to 75 or 80 kids active in a smaller space than a full gymnasium and doing things they want to do."

What that means is that the so-called PEP grants, or Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress grants, are also providing fitness equipment manufacturers a whole new market and the chance to create customers for life.

"Across the country, school budgets are shrinking and PE classes are being scaled back or eliminated all together just as the children's obesity crisis is growing," said Anne Flannery, president and CEO of PE4Life, a non-profit advocacy organization that lobbied Congress for funding PEP grants. "The PEP grant program provides an important weapon for combating all three."

Three cheers for PEP
PEP grants were first made available in 2001. Since then, the total amount given to schools has increased from $5 million spread among 18 school districts to $69 million given this year. Noting the strong support and lobby in favor of the funding, Congress in September approved $75 million for next year's PEP grants. Last month, 237 school districts and non-profit, community-based organizations heard the news that they received grants ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. Since the inception of PEP grants, almost 700 school districts and other community-based organizations have received money. They have gone to cities as large as New York City and as small as Lamar, Mo. (population 5,000). According to a PE4Life figures, the number of kids affected by the grants reaches into the millions.

To receive grants, schools must fill out an application describing the program they want at their school or non-profit community organization, including what type of equipment they want to purchase. Successful school applicants receive the money in the fall of the following school year and have a limited time (one to three years) to purchase equipment and get a program started.

Getting hooked up
Manufacturers can become an active part of this process since schools don't specify brands in their applications, but begin shopping after winning a grant. According to PE4Life (www.pe4life.org), manufacturers contact schools and enter the likes of a bidding competition with other prospective companies. Savvy manufacturers can track when the money is awarded (October), research who got grants (on either the PE4Life site or the government's education, www.ed.gov, site), and then begin contacting schools to be considered a possible supplier by sending catalogs and other information.

For example, Life Fitness has placed its equipment in a number of schools -- about 10 to 15 each year since the program's inception -- and often works with the schools or districts during the grant-writing process to include the type and quantity in that application that is appropriate for the programs desired, a spokeswoman said. Once the grant is received, Life Fitness then works with the school directors to design the optimum facility possible within the budget, plus members of its Life Fitness Academy will also help the schools with programming design.  

That well-honed example aside, mostly naïve school leaders must first get some education about the program and equipment possibilities, Flannery said.

"We bring in groups of six to 10 leaders from a community to train for one or two days (usually the PEP winning teams take the two days), and they learn how to completely revamp their school PE programs, and support them throughout the entire community," Flannery said. "Facilities, equipment, curriculum selection, funding, advocacy, assessment, and marketing for their programs are all covered. It really teaches the PE teachers how to become the CEO of physical activity in their community, and of course that takes a team approach."

"Mostly what we've always done in PE is learn the game and how to win," said James Walsh, principal at Hopewell Junior High in Pennsylvania, which recently received a PEP grant. "But the purpose of that was to compete and learn fair play. While that's good and it's important to learn those things, we need to move it further and talk about activities health-wise. I don't think students have a good understanding of what it takes to maintain a healthy lifestyle. They learn by example and our society has a lot of passive activity and we need to have them learn or change their thinking about what it means to be active and fit."

Activities that kids want to do can include, at some schools, riding a stationary bike while playing a motocross video game that responds to how fast the player pedals, or lifting weights instead of standing in line to take a swing at softball.

For example, at Lawler's school in Illinois, he dropped wrestling and tumbling because there was too much standing around, and added things like stationary bike-driven video games, weight machines, cardio equipment and a rock climbing wall.

Activities for life
In addition to changing the activities available to kids, the philosophy behind PE is shifting with a goal of teaching kids how to remain active throughout their lives.

"In the old days, it used to be who's the fastest, but now it's about getting all kids moving at a level appropriate for them," Lawler said. "Less fit kids now feel comfortable in exercising and doing what they can do. We're making fitness a habit for kids and turning the responsibility over to them."

In order to do this, schools are working directly with manufacturers, like heart rate monitor-supplier Polar Inc., to create curriculum and provide equipment for kids. That's a win-win since schools get programs, manufacturers have an outlet for product, and kids get fit too.

"The new PE focus is on no humiliation," said Sylvia Hom, who develops Polar's involvement with PEP grants as marketing director of business-to-business. "It's not about sports skills or who can hit the farthest. We're trying to teach kids about fitness for life and keeping your body active. Hopefully, when the kids see the heart rate monitors and realize that their bodies are healthier and they can see that they will understand."

Here are for examples of the possible partnerships between fitness suppliers and schools utilizing equipment and products of all types and sizes:

>> Chinle Unified School District in Arizona received $426,378 in grant money this year. Fitequip, a company out of Phoenix that sells products from Star Trac, Muscle Dynamics and other brands to schools, corporations and apartment complexes, won the bid to provide equipment for the district. The company sold Chinle four treadmills, two elliptical trainers and 50 selectorized weight machines, which will be divided among one high school, three junior highs, and four elementary schools. "It's so exciting to receive all of this equipment," said Jeannette Scott, a PE instructor at Chinle High School. "It's attracting a lot of people to the weight rooms already, including staff. We're just trying to find room for it all."
The district also received pedometers, heart rate monitors, hula hoops and other accessories, most of which will go to younger kids in the district, including students at Chinle's kindergarten.  

>> Approximately 2,500 kids will benefit from the $305,000 that the Hopewell-area school district in Pennsylvania received. The money is to be used over three years with $245,000 earmarked for equipment, which has to be spent in the first year. Years two and three will focus on PE staff training to be funded by the remainder of the grant money. Hopewell school principal Walsh said that the district "hasn't spent a dime yet," nor has it decided where it'll get its equipment, but he knows it will include treadmills, stationary bikes and weight machines.

"If we can let kids come and pick something they like to do, they'll get more out of gym class than they used to," he said. "The only equipment that we have now is a collection of weight pieces that are probably older than I am."

Heart rate monitors are also on the district's purchase wish list, because, Walsh said, they're a good way to track a student's improvements. Elementary schools in the district will receive items like heart rate monitors and pedometers, while the junior high and high schools will receive the weight and cardio equipment. The school is already receiving catalogs, phone calls and emails from manufacturers that want the district to purchase their products.

>> Des Moines, Iowa-area, schools received a grant of $448,954 in 2003. Equipment bought with the money was divided among 41 elementary schools, 13 middle schools and nine high schools. About 850 kids attend Weeks Middle School, which used the money to buy 10 weighted hula hoops from Heavy Hoop, as well as accessories such as pedometers and medicine balls.

"We have 'Fitness Friday' now and we use the hoops to make squats and crunches harder," Angel Smyth, one of Weeks' PE teachers, said. "A lot of the exercises we do we could do without the hoops, but they make the activities more fun for the kids."

>> Fargo Public School District in North Dakota received PEP grants two years in a row. In 2002, two alternative high schools in the district received $179,007. Most of that money went to equipment for fitness centers; however, a portion of it also purchased 24 Polar heart rate monitors, two hand-held pocket PC Companions, and a TriFIT health assessment software package that allows teachers to track students' results in sit and reach, blood pressure, bicep strength, body fat, and more electronically. In 2003, the district received $323,015 and used it to purchase equipment for two high schools, three middle schools and 13 elementary schools. The equipment purchased included about 280 Polar heart rate monitors, 37 Companions (one for each PE teacher) and TriFIT software for each school in the district.  

"We also bought Dance, Dance, Revolution, which is a video game that gets kids moving and dancing," Lois Mauch, PE specialist for the district, said. "The kids wear the heart rate monitors while they're dancing. They also wear them while they're on stationary bikes that are hooked up to a video game that takes them through different terrain.

"Not only are they having a great time, but we're seeing an increase in cardio fitness," she said. "The heart rate monitors have allowed them to take ownership. I feel honored as a teacher to have this equipment to work with. It's a huge difference for PE because it used to be just throwing a ball and blowing a whistle."

SNEWS® View: Another avenue for selling equipment and other products, while also helping kids get more fit, thus creating a next generation that will want fitness equipment. Study after study shows that kids who are active more frequently become more active and fit adults. If the industry can help boost that frequency, we say, you go. That's a double-whammy benefit, to beat them all.

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