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Lori Duffy Foster

... write to think; think to write.

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)



March 18, 1999


By Lori Foster


Santina Chiodo and Stacey Atkins stopped their physical education teacher after class Friday at North Syracuse Junior High School.

They wanted to know, is gymnastics a good cardiovascular workout?"It's interesting to know," Atkins said, fiddling with a watch on her wrist that kept track of her heart rate. "We both do gymnastics. We want to be coaches."

Atkins, 13, and Chiodo, 14, paid little attention to their heart rates until the end of January when Jill Nappi visited their school for the first time.

Nappi is an alumna of the district who is working on a master's degree in exercise science at Syracuse University. Atkins, Chiodo and about 160 other junior high school students are the subjects of her thesis.

Nappi is focusing on the effects of low- and high-intensity exercise on the fitness levels of children, but the experiment seems to be producing results that can't be measured by monitors, calipers and computers.

At an age marked by awkward growth spurts, intense peer pressure and unrealistic media images of thinness, many of the students are learning to like their bodies. Most said they plan to give fitness permanent priority in their lives.

"I want to be healthy," said Shonna Bish, 13.

Nappi said she became interested in cardiovascular fitness among children last spring after reading an article from The Syracuse Newspapers about Bob Wehinger, her former physical education teacher at North Syracuse Junior High.

Wehinger uses heart rate monitors in his classes to encourage lifetime fitness and to more fairly grade students. He chooses two or three students each day and tells them to strap transmitters to their chests. The transmitters send signals to receivers, which look like watches on their wrists.

Students can see their heart rates go up and down throughout their workouts. Meanwhile, a computer chip stores the information in the watch. Wehinger then downloads the information into a computer to find out how long the students stayed in their target heart rate zones.

Over the years, he has learned that visual observations of effort can be deceptive. Sometimes an overweight student who walks laps around the gym can be working harder than an athlete who runs around the gym. The computer readouts give him an unbiased measure.

"It's just interesting," Nappi said. "You can't use the norms for adults in testing kids. All the testing is done on adults."

Nappi started by using calipers and light electrical currents to measure the percentages of body fat and lean muscle mass in each of the children. She then divided them into three coed groups and tested their baseline fitness levels with the monitors.

The control group continues to follow the regular curriculums of Wehinger and Charles Banks, who also teaches physical education. Nappi works with another group to achieve heart rates of 125 to 145 beats per minute for at least 20 minutes each class.

In the third group, Nappi tries to bring heart rates up to 165 to 185 per minute. The target heart rate for their age group is 180, but that figure is based on the way adult bodies burn energy, Nappi said.

All the students wear monitors during class. Wehinger has gathered more than 100 Polar monitors for the school along with the computers to analyze the data through donations and grants.

Nappi tries to make the classes fun with activities like aerobics, Tae Bo and basketball.

"At first the kids wouldn't talk to me. They were real standoffish, especially the boys," Nappi said. "They weren't used to having a female in class. They are very interesting."

Now, the boys and girls bombard Nappi with questions about heart rates and body fat. She even asked them to guess her own weight to help dispel distorted messages about weight.

At 5-foot-1, Nappi is thin and trim. They figured 90 pounds. Wrong.

"Kids are always floored when they find out I'm 120," Nappi said. "I'd rather be 120 pounds of muscle than 100 pounds of skin and bones. I haven't been 100 pounds since I was 13."

Nappi plans to recheck the body-fat percentages, lean muscle mass ratios and cardiovascular fitness levels of all the children April 2. She will present the results at the school in May.

Two 14-year-old students, Pamela Jones and Sarah Winks, said they already know the experiment is succeeding. Both are in Nappi's lower intensity group. They see the evidence on their wrists when they do step aerobics in class.

"I was surprised," Jones said. "My heart rate isn't going as high as it used to."