For kids struggling at school, learning can feel like running on a treadmill. For students in one City Park Collegiate classroom, it's a reality.
Teacher Allison Cameron has integrated treadmills and stationary bicycles into her Grade 8 class instruction. Instead of pencils, she supplies her students with antiperspirant sticks and a lot of encouragement.
During language arts, students do 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, getting their heart rates into an optimal zone while reading or watching a documentary. In math class, they head into the weight room for strength-training while thinking about an arithmetic problem posted by Cameron.
Following the workouts every other day, students cool down with quiet time, such as reading or journal-writing. That is, once they've gone for water, changed clothes and coated their armpits in antiperspirant -- which "is supposed to go on before you exercise, not to mask the smell afterwards," Cameron reminded them on a recent afternoon. For the remainder of the day, the curriculum is as regular as a high-fibre dieter.
"It's pretty out there, but it works," said Cameron, who launched the program near the end of January.
Less than two months later, her students' attention has sharpened and they spend far more time on assignments without interruption. That alone is a victory as Cameron's students wrestle with a myriad of issues that threaten to derail their education.
City Park Collegiate offers alternative programming for those whose lives don't fit into a regular school setting for various reasons -- learning disabilities, domestic or personal issues. Many in Cameron's class suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which makes it hard for them to control their behavior and or pay attention. She has found 20 minutes of exercise have translated into two hours of sustained concentration from the students. That quality learning has compensated the loss of instruction time to the treadmills and bikes.
The benefits of exercise are well known but the traditional approaches "are designed to fail," Cameron said. "Kids who aren't athletically-inclined tend to shy away from it. On a track, the slower people get lapped and it can be damaging to their self-esteem. In this (program) no one knows who's slower or faster."
The concept is unique to Canada and modeled on the Learning Readiness Physical Education at Naperville Central high school west of Chicago. The LRPE is based on research indicating physically active students are more academically alert and experience enhanced brain development. In one semester last year, Naperville students involved in LRPE improved their reading and comprehension scores by 50 per cent more than students who took the literacy class alone. Those who took LRPE before math class increased their algebra readiness by an average of 20 per cent compared to a two per cent average improvement for other students.
Disciplinary problems decreased by 67 per cent and the use of Ritalin plummeted. The prescription drug, commonly used to treat ADHD, provides the same chemicals the body naturally produces through exercise.
"I used to always be tired in the morning but now I can concentrate better. I just feel like learning," said Kashton Rode, 14, whose chunky silver chains bounced against his chest as he paced himself on the treadmill in Cameron's classroom.
Alex Herbel, 14, was relentlessly bullied at his former school and found it difficult to concentrate, if he went at all. He has transformed in Cameron's class.
"It feels great. I feel better about myself. I didn't think anything like this would help but it does, it's crazy," he said, adding, "I'd rather stay at this school than go where there are people who don't care about other people."
Cameron's introduction to the concept came from Grant Roberts, a Saskatoon-raised trainer who owns fitness centres in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Calgary and Saskatoon. Roberts, who helped sculpt actress Hilary Swank's body for her Oscar-winning role in the film Million Dollar Baby, met Cameron a year ago while the two were working out at his Mecca Fitness club on Fairmont Drive.
Cameron was recuperating from a broken ankle and had been using a SitFit, an air-filled rubber disc, to stand on in class. It was comfortable on her ankle and provided rehabilitation benefits. When she was finished with it, some students asked to try sitting on it.
"Lo and behold, they could sit for a time and concentrate," Cameron said.
She was planning to buy several more when she mentioned it to Roberts. He asked what her budget was like.
"I'm a teacher," she replied. "I don't have one."
He told her about the LRPE program and that he could put her in touch with the people who designed it and run it. He also offered to donate eight treadmills and six exercise bikes.
"Youth fitness is becoming a major focus of my work. If I can impact young people and influence the rest of their lives in a positive way, then I'm all for it," said Robertson. "The greatest threat to North America right now is not 9/11, it's 7-Eleven. Food choices and the sedentary lifestyle are a major problem.
Cameron pitched the idea to her administrators at City Park and the public school division. She also spoke with as many parents of her students as possible, though reaching them is iffy. During one parent-teacher session, parents of just four of her 12 students showed.
When the program was approved, Cameron requested one more thing: A bigger classroom. She moved into the multi-purpose room to accommodate the equipment and school desks. It is also conveniently located beside the weight room.
The initial reaction of many students to the idea was one of expression more than words. They scowled and frowned and the majority of them couldn't ride the bikes for more than five minutes before they were winded.
Attendance has also improved. If students came at all, they'd often not return after lunch. Lured by the program, they now come every day, despite the fact many choose to live on the streets rather than return home when the school day ends.
"There are still some issues in their lives but if I can keep them coming to school, we're on the right track," Cameron said.