A digital option for physical education: Some Minneapolis students opt for ‘online gym’

It seems like an oxymoron that there would be something called online gym.

When Josie Klein tells people she takes online gym, she gets a lot of raised eyebrows.

Klein, a senior at Minneapolis Southwest High School, said most people comment on the irony of a physical education course that requires sitting in front of a computer.

“It seems like an oxymoron that there would be something called online gym,” Klein said.

While many people are unaware of its existence, the course has been offered in Minneapolis Public Schools for more than a decade. Jan Braaten, the head of the district’s Health and Physical Education (PE) department at the time, introduced it after a conversation with a co-worker in 2004.

Nat Shogren, a senior at Minneapolis Southwest, shows the wearable health tracker he uses while taking an online gym class at his high school. (Aidan Berg/ThreeSixty Journalism)

“She just threw out the idea of online PE, and of course I laughed like everybody did,” said Braaten, who retired in 2010. “Then I went home and I started to think about it.

“We were having a hard time in high schools with scheduling. Kids just couldn’t find room for the Health and PE credits.”

Soon, Braaten approached her teachers with the idea. They were skeptical.

“They all just raised their eyebrows and shrugged their shoulders,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s just give this a try, and if it’s a failure, I’ll take the responsibility, but if it’s a success, it can help some of the issues we’re having.’”

Students earn credit by turning in online journals describing their physical activities from each day and how they felt about it. As the course developed, it came to include fitness tracking equipment such as heart rate monitors and FitBits, wristbands that measure the number of steps a person takes and other health data each day. This information can be uploaded so that teachers can track their students’ progress in real time.

A common question about online gym is one of honesty: how can teachers know if students are actually doing the requisite exercises?

Teachers are supposed to follow up with parents to make sure students are working out. This has produced some interesting experiences.

“One kid turned in 1,000 push-ups, 1,000 sit-ups every day,” Braaten said. When the teacher followed up with the student’s mother, she told him that it was part of her son’s track regimen, Braaten said.

However, the system is far from foolproof. Some students say they’ve deceived the FitBit and tracking devices by taking it off of their wrist and shaking it, attaching it to a ceiling fan and even tying it to a pet dog. Others say they’ve made progress by simply playing the piano.

Nat Shogren, a Southwest senior who takes online gym, enjoys the fact that he doesn’t have to change clothes or work himself into a sweat in the middle of the school day in a traditional gym class.

“Forcing someone into a pool to swim because they need their physical activity for that day, that doesn’t actually help them get any healthier,” Shogren said. “It’s just getting them mad.”

He also believes the course can help students maintain good physical self-care after they leave high school.

“It’s kind of the philosophy of, ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life,’” he said. “If you teach someone how to exercise properly, that sets them on the track toward being a healthier person.”

This view is shared by Brian Devore, a health and physical education content specialist at Cobb County Schools in Marietta, Georgia. Cobb also offers online gym, and Devore says the system can assist students in developing healthy habits.

“If I know how to take care of my body and I know how to work out, then I don’t have to pay a personal trainer $50 an hour,” Devore said.

Devore sees a lot of potential for further developments in the use of technology in the class.

“Maybe [teachers could] start looking at having students submitting videos of their activity as part of the assignment,” Devore said. “Maybe a student does a self-analysis of the skill or activity so they can see what they did well, what they didn’t do well and how they can improve.”

The program has its shortcomings, too, he said. While it can be more personal for students to learn something on their own, Devore says students sacrifice the social aspect of working with peers and learning the skills of a new sport in class.

With more online gym courses popping up across the country, there is likely to be more discussions of the concept’s merits and limitations.

“I would say it’s been very successful,” Braaten said. “It’s been copied pretty much all over the country, and nobody really says too much about it anymore.”