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Leveraging Technology to Improve Physical Activity in High School Students

By Kyle Peckham on November 10, 2021 hst Print

Editor’s Note: While this article concerns primarily physical education programs and not education-based high school sports, we believe the information related to the use of suggested equipment might have crossover implications and be of interest for leaders of varsity sports programs.

With the number of adolescents reporting issues with mental health on the rise, strategies to improve mental health need to be prioritized. A systematic review by Rodriguez-Ayllon et al. in 2019 found significant associations between physical activity and lower levels of psychological ill-being (depression, stress, negative effect and total psychological distress).(1) This review also demonstrated greater psychological well-being (self-image, satisfaction with life and happiness) for those who participated in physical activity regularly. (1)

Exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for depression, and has similar effectiveness to anti-depressant medications as a frontline treatment for mild to moderate depression. (2) Yet, three-quarters of children ages 6-17 years of age do not meet the CDC guidelines for physical activity (60 minutes or more of physical activity, seven days per week).(3) Contributing to this issue is the fact that only 51.7 percent of high school students attended some physical education classes in a normal week, with only 29.9 percent reporting that they attend physical education classes daily.(4)

With all of this in mind, a greater emphasis should be placed on ensuring these students are getting the physical activity they need, whether that be in education-based high school sports, in structured physical education classes or through increased access to fitness facilities in schools.

In a traditional secondary school weight room or fitness center, individuals will find a space filled with free weights, resistance bands, cardio equipment, squat racks and benches. Some schools may even have Olympic lift platforms with strength coaches to instruct students on how to perform basic to advanced level-lifting techniques and develop programs to fit their students’ needs.

This scenario, however, is not in place in many rural or under- served schools. Limited funding, limited real estate within the school footprint and lack of access to highly knowledgeable individuals in the areas of fitness are major barriers for many schools to provide access for their students to achieve physical activity guidelines. Improvements in fitness technology, however, present an interesting solution to both the footprint and potential knowledge gaps that many schools face.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the use of digital fitness equipment garnered a lot of buzz throughout the media. The use of home-based smart gyms like Tonal, Mirror and Tempo saw significant growth with digital fitness class platforms like Peloton, Echelon, Nordic Track and Apple Fitness experiencing similar demand.

In the digital age, it has never been easier to access high quality and science-based fitness classes, an area many schools could explore in the coming years to improve physical activity levels in their students.

For those unfamiliar with smart gym options, all of these platforms utilize some form of artificial intelligence (AI) technology to deliver a more customized workout experience for the user. Tonal touts the ability to determine the optimal weight for its user, while Mirror boasts the ability to use its camera technology to make workout modifications in real-time and Tempo utilizes a three-dimensional model of its user to provide feedback on form, counting repetitions and proper cadence of exercise. All three of these platforms, as well as others like Peloton, Nordic Track and Apple Fitness+ also offer on-demand workout classes.

Most of the digital-resistance devices are compact in size and can be mounted directly to the wall. They provide versatility both in the amount of resistance, and the variety of exercises one is able to perform. With these devices, one can perform several different exercises ranging from squats to curls originating from a single compact hub. In contrast, think of the space a squat rack or bench requires and the space needed to store and access the various weights.

While the smart gym technology certainly isn’t cheap, it is comparable to traditional equipment at about $3,000 range per unit, similar to a stocked squat rack or bench. The versatility these devices offer, combined with the AI component, may make these a preferred option for schools moving forward. Access to the science- based programming and classes that are interactive for the students are what truly differentiate these options from traditional equipment.

One thing to keep in mind would be that much of this equipment was designed for personal at-home use and because this equipment is so new, its durability in a high-volume school setting likely hasn’t been widely tested. Additionally, it is important to note that nothing can replace the benefits of having a knowledgeable and dedicated physical education teacher, or strength coach on staff who is able to cater to each individual student.

However, for those schools that cannot afford to hire a position like this, or don’t have access to an individual with this knowledge, having a science-based program for students to follow with AI feedback could be an acceptable alternative to fill the knowledge gap. And for those schools that can and do hire these professionals, these digital fitness classes and emerging technology could be another tool to provide variety and foster physical activity compliance in a generation that truly needs it.


1. Rodriguez-Ayllon M, Cadenas-Sánchez C, Estévez-López F, Muñoz NE, Mora-Gonzalez J, Migueles JH, Molina-García P, Henriksson H, Mena-Molina A, Martínez-Vizcaíno V, Catena A, Löf M, Erickson KI, Lubans DR, Ortega FB, Esteban- Cornejo I. Role of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in the Mental Health of Preschoolers, Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2019 Sep;49(9):1383-1410. doi: 10.1007/ s40279-019-01099-5. PMID: 30993594.

2. Carek PJ, Laibstain SE, Carek SM. Exercise for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 2011;41(1):15-28. doi:10.2190/ PM.41.1.c

3. (The Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI). 2016 National Survey of Childrens Health. Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health;2016) .

4. Laura K, McManus T, Harris WA, et al. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2017. MMWR. 2018;67(8):1– 144.