An online gym class? No sweat

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
August 14, 2011

VIRGINIA BEACH

When School Board Chairman Dan Edwards told me the division was offering physical education courses online, I rolled my eyes. An online gym class? Have our fitness standards fallen so far that surfing the Internet is now considered exercise?

Edwards said the course could be rigorous, but it sounded to me like a free pass for undersized, unathletic, wimpy kids. Without a proper high school gym class, how would these students learn they were meant to be journalists and not basketball players?

I expressed my doubts to administrators, and a week later, school officials challenged me to enroll in the class, which equips students with heart rate monitors and computerized wristwatches to track daily workouts. I agreed, but not before consulting a couple of students who had been through the virtual program.

“Tell me how to cheat,” I said to 15-year-old Blayne Allen, a sophomore at Tallwood’s global studies academy who took the online course this summer. Allen said he attempted to strap the monitor to his Labrador retriever, but the dog’s thick coat prevented a proper connection. Besides, Ocean Lakes instructor Kathy Harcourt cautioned, “I would be able to tell if your dog worked out for you. No human heart rate should be that high.”

I made a note.

Harcourt appeared uncomfortable as she handed over the $322 monitor and wristwatch. “Please don’t break this,” she said. The teacher told me to work out for one hour a day for five out of seven days and then report back to her. “Then let’s see if you still think it’s easy.”

Fair enough.

Students who take the class are asked to sign an agreement promising to be truthful – at least one parent was caught exercising for her child, I’m told – but Harcourt neglected to give me the ethics contract.

Still, I intended to give the class an honest try the first day, perhaps with a brisk evening jog through my neighborhood. I ditched that plan when heat indexes topped 100 degrees. Instead, I attached the monitor to my 6-month-old son and soon learned that his resting heart rate of 145 beats per minute is within the target workout range for a scrawny 26-year-old male.

Day one, check.

My plan to complete all the “workouts” this way was dashed when my wife scolded me for “shamelessly exploiting” her baby.

I remembered that Harcourt had suggested I look for natural periods within my daily routine that might result in elevated heart activity. So I franticly strapped the monitor around my chest one evening when I hit rush-hour traffic at the Downtown Tunnel. My heart rate spiked into the target zone for about 12 seconds when I screamed at the driver of a minivan that had cut me off. The road rage didn’t last nearly long enough to fulfill the hour requirement.

I skipped the workout altogether that night.

Later in the week, I found brief success by wearing the monitor while walking the dogs a little more briskly than usual. The plan failed when my grotesquely out-of-shape beagle lay down on the sidewalk after only 13 minutes. (I considered shaving his chest and strapping the monitor on him but remembered the teacher’s warning.)

My other experiments failed, too. Holding a screaming infant at 3 in the morning is stressful, but, it turns out, it doesn’t make your heart beat much faster. The same is true of listening to political debt ceiling debates on the radio and shoveling food into your mouth as fast as you can.

Six days had passed, and I still hadn’t logged a single honest workout. Disappointed and ashamed, I laced up an old pair of running shoes and went for a jog. I was desperately out of breath within minutes, but I hit my marks and kept moving the entire hour.

My legs were sore the next day as Harcourt uploaded my workout log from the wristwatch. The teacher shook her head. “What was this here?” she said, pointing to the flat-line heartbeat recorded each time my son pulled the monitor off his chest.

She told me most of her high school students demonstrate more responsibility and determination. The majority of the teenagers enrolled in her online course, she said, manage to meet the exercise requirements without cheating, lying or exploiting small children. And that’s on top of the written coursework and online discussions.

The class was harder than I imagined.

“I’m glad you tried,” Harcourt said, an apparent attempt to nurture a damaged ego. “But when you cheat, you’re only hurting yourself.”

They didn’t dish out life lessons like that during my high school gym class. We were too busy playing kickball.

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