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Whatever Happened to Gym Class?.

Fat Chance
WebMD Feature

July 2, 2001 -- Like millions of Americans, Ernie Prado and Brittany Keele work out as much as possible to stay in shape. They do so at a high-tech fitness facility that allows them to race stationary bicycles on virtual courses against computer-generated opponents, and keep track of their fitness levels over time using handheld devices.

Prado and Keele don't pay hundreds of dollars each month for membership in this state-of-the-art health center. They pay nothing at all, because the 14-year-old 8th graders are students at West Middle School in Downey, Calif.

The school's Cyberaerobic Center is the brainchild of physical education teacher Dan Latham, who 10 years ago turned a little-used 2,000-foot athletics storage building into an aerobics facility. He has been incorporating computers into the mix ever since, and the center now has 55 fitness machines, six with the "video game" component.

"We needed a way to hook [the students]," Latham tells WebMD. "We were losing them to video games, so I decided to take their world and our world and come up with a happy medium. The kids like it because they can pick different [virtual] courses to ride on with the bikes and different courses to run on with the treadmills. But they have to be active in order for the machines to work."

All 1,200 students at the middle school attend PE classes at the center for at least three weeks during the school year, and they also have access for two hours after school, four days a week. Latham is now trying to start similar aerobics facilities at two Downey high schools, both financed exclusively, like the West Middle School center, through fund-raising events and private contributions.

"It is better than being outside, because there is air conditioning," says Prado, whose goal is to build up his shoulders for football next season. "I live in an apartment building, and the only thing I can do there is ride my bike in a little circle in this tiny parking lot."

"For a lot of kids, this is their extracurricular activity," says Keele, who plays ice hockey. "They can either go home and play video games and get no exercise at all, or they can go to the cyberaerobics lab with their friends and play games and work out."

PE Under Siege

All over the country, teachers like Latham are introducing innovations which are virtually reinventing physical education, while many school administrators and public officials have all but declared war on PE. Fitness classes are disappearing from the nation's public schools at an alarming rate, done in by ever-tightening budgets and time constraints.

Only about half of students in grades K-12 have physical education classes every day, and only 29% of high school students do. And one in four kids have no PE during their school day at all, according to figures from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), the nation's largest professional organization for physical education teachers. In a report released last year, NASPE found that the vast majority of high school students have physical education for only one year between 9th and 12th grades.

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