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Making Exercise in School as Easy as Child’s Play

Lack of exercise among America’s youth contributes to a sedentary lifestyle that’s robbing them of health and compromising their ability to succeed in school.  A generation ago, kids commonly played outside until dark.  Today, parents are challenged with trying to separate them from TV, the Internet, video games; and smart phones.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Most children need at least an hour of physical activity every day.”  The NIH says that such regular exercise helps children keep a healthy weight, build and keep healthy bones, muscles and joints; feel less stressed; feel better about themselves; feel more ready to learn in school; and sleep better at night.

Other studies have shown that children who exercise one hour a day can improve their academic scores up to 40%, as well as experience less depression, or disciplinary issues in class or home.  It may even reduce suicide, bullying, and help children make better food choices. Visit for more statistics on the benefits of exercise for children.

While regular exercise is no magic elixir, it creates a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the muscles which then travels to the brain, when present in the brain it supports neural connections – like super nutrition for the brain. The BDNF gene provides instructions for making a protein found in the brain and spinal cord. This protein promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by playing a role in the growth, maturation (differentiation), and maintenance of these cells.

To take advantage of these benefits, parents, PTAs, and educators are looking to put more exercise back in the curriculum and make it as easy as child’s play.

One solution to motivate students to exercise in schools, from elementary through high school and beyond, is by including a fun, whole body approach to working out. A portable, modular obstacle course constructed of rugged plastic rails and connectors that provide an elevated, flat, curved, or inclined platform for exercises traditionally done on the ground like lunges, crab walks, bear crawls, push ups, pull ups, hop overs, etc. is catching on in popularity.

Described by some as an active playground or big set of Lincoln Logs, students climb, crawl, jump, duck, bend, lunge, squat, twist, push, and pull themselves across the obstacle course, which naturally builds dynamic strength, balance, flexibility, and coordination through functional movement.  The total body workout is similar to how our ancestors naturally exercised in daily life for thousands of years.

“When students are up on the obstacle course, they’re so excited to use it they don’t realize they’re getting a cardio or resistance workout,” says Carlye Satterwhite, PE Curriculum Coordinator at DMS Schools inDes Moines, Iowa, who oversees 71 schools and alternative programs which rotate use of two sets of the obstacle course throughout the school year.

“When parents see their children get excited about exercise, they want more time on the obstacle course,” adds Satterwhite.  “Parents and PTAs can help by asking for more access to such healthy exercise and by providing supplementary funding for it when possible.  The cost is quite reasonable when shared among schools.”

Unlike traditional exercise done on a flat surface, the third dimension of height challenges students and develops their balance, vision, and focus in an unfamiliar environment, says Satterwhite.  She adds that by moving through the obstacle course with their own body weight, students naturally improve their agility, skills for daily living, and when challenged, their PE teacher or other students can coach them past their comfort zone.

“With adjustable height and incline, PE teachers can quickly modify the obstacle course so students can be safe and successful on it at whatever their age or ability level,” says Satterwhite.  “Having students model other successful students, often in pairs, is also a good learning strategy.”

According to Satterwhite, this type of exercise can actively engage many students at once to maximize their exercise and minimize downtime, even in short periods of time.

“An obstacle course can keep large numbers of students active without having them sit and watch while others exercise,” says Satterwhite, whose school district has successfully used this type of fitness since 2008.  “It’s easy to separate it into workstation rotations, say for step ups, pull ups, over-unders, army crawling, or plyometric jumping and squatting.  I’ve seen about 20 students paired with partners, rotating every 30 seconds.”

Because the obstacle course can be quickly set up in dozens of layouts, it is versatile enough to hold the interest of students.  Since it is modular, components can be added at any time, and it can be set up, taken apart, or modified in minutes.  Because of this, it is possible for students to create their own fitness courses.

“Every day our PE teachers change the variety of exercises or obstacles on the fitness course to keep it fun and interesting for boys and girls,” says Satterwhite.  “But it’s actually at its most motivating when students create their own obstacle courses, and even match them with music to create student-generated fitness and dance performances.”

Noting that the obstacle course has also been used by colleges and professional sports teams for functional results for over a decade, Satterwhite plans to use it with a variety of school sports teams.

“I’d like to use the obstacle course to help our athletes improve their reaction and quick cutting time in sports like football, baseball, basketball, softball, and soccer,” says Satterwhite.  “Only the demand for it is so high in our district that it would be helpful to have more obstacle courses.”

While the obstacle course is often used in traditional PE classes, it can be used in smaller class settings such as adaptive PE.

“Students like the obstacle course because it continually provides new achievable challenges,” says Scott Adolf, an MSEd, ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Adaptive Physical Education Teacher, working with K-12 students in Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.  “Whether they have a disability or not, it’s intrinsically motivating to reach the next level of success, and it’s great for their self esteem.”

Adolf found value in the obstacle course’s fitness and training manual including 50 exercises with warm ups, cool downs, and 20 ready to use lesson plans, though he routinely adapts exercises for the individual abilities of his students in special education programs.  The result has been better student attention and decreased disciplinary issues.

“It helps that the course has visuals showing cardiovascular training in green and resistance training in red,” says Adolf.  “At most, I’ll have students do two cardio stations in a row before doing resistance training, and it’s easy to mix things up to hold their interest.

“Behavior wise, I see better focus, attention and concentration in my students, and much less fidgeting and aggressive tendency,” adds Adolf.  “The obstacle course exercises are some of the most effective remedies I’ve found to minimize acting out.”

Adolf finds the portable obstacle course easy to transport, with no component weighing more than 40 lbs., yet durable enough to last with components that can support 600 lbs.

“I can pick up, move, or transform my entire obstacle course within two minutes,” says Adolf, whose course includes five bases and three rails, but would like to add more components with grants or PTA funding.  “It should last many years in my setting, keeping my students physically and mentally active.”

While using an obstacle course at school will not by itself turn things around for America’s sedentary youth, it is an easy way to start changing the way we think about exercise and can reacquaint them with their bodies and show them that, in fact, exercise is fun.

“When students successfully, repeatedly exercise their bodies to gain new strength and agility, it motivates them,” concludes Satterwhite.  “We hope they’ll bring that active lifestyle home until it becomes a healthy life habit.”

To learn more about the options available for a portable, indoor obstacle course, call 877-787-0222 toll free; or visit for free downloadable training manuals or exercise signals.

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