By Nancy Fischer | News Niagara Reporter

on September 7, 2013 – 6:00 PM

NORTH TONAWANDA – Fitness can be drudgery, especially for kids.

But last week, about 4,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students in North Tonawanda returned to school to find new fitness rooms filled with new, brightly colored fitness equipment – including a number that use virtual reality and video games – clearly designed to be fun.

“It makes the time go by faster,” said freshman Nick Rosky, who was trying to grab up coins for points on an interactive fitness bike that was like an Xbox 360 on wheels.

“It’s insane,” said Rachel Krawczyk, a 10th-grade volleyball player working out in the new spinning room with her friend and teammate Erin O’Lay, also a 10th-grader.

“It’s cool. It’s a fun to work out, using a video,” O’Lay said.

A few other classmates peeked in the door, eyes wide at all the new “toys” awaiting them.

The nearly $1.5 million update was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Carol M. White Physical Education Program.

Athletic Director Cindy Bullis said the awards are extremely competitive.

Bullis said that when she was hired three years ago, she began looking for a way to update the district’s physical education program, as well as replacing old, outdated equipment and bringing technology into the program. It amounts to “huge, huge projects for schools to take on” and can be a very expensive proposition without grants.

The grant funds part of her salary and all of the new equipment:

• At the high school the district has knocked down walls and taken over three classrooms to create the new fitness room, which includes a weight room and cycling room with interactive-video game bikes and a virtual reality screen for cycling.

• In the middle school the fitness room is half weights and half cardio.

• All of the elementary schools are getting traversing walls, usually called climbing walls or “sport walls,” with technology that measures reaction time – lighting for kids to react to moving lights or for use for targets or relays. They all have scoreboards for individual or team scores.

Bullis said the district also has purchased 30 wireless iDance pads with programs that can be projected on gym walls.

“Thirty kids can have their own pads doing the iDance. It’s like ‘Dance, Dance Revolution,’ ” Bullis said, noting the popular dancing game for game systems. She said they will also have Wii programs that can be used for both regular physical education and adapted physical education.

“Say you are doing a unit on bowling, and that student can’t do the actual bowling. We can put the Wii bowling on, and they can get the same directions and techniques and understand the sport of bowling,” she said. “So they can interact on their own level.”

“The kids are coming in and saying, ‘Wow,’ ” she said of the new equipment rooms.

And then they see how the new equipment can be used.

“A lot of these bikes are interactive, so it’s like riding a bike into a video game,” she said. “They play the video game while they are riding and they don’t even know how hard they are working. They can also challenge each other.”

She said for the next three years the physical education staff will measure how the students are doing, but after the third year they may be able to open up the fitness rooms to the community and perhaps offer something like adult education spinning classes.

“The ultimate goal is to have a fully updated health curriculum and hopefully increase our fitness levels. To get kids more involved in exercise outside of physical education classes,” Bullis said.

“You’ve got to make it fun. You’ve got to make it come to the kids’ level,” she said. “The goal is to be lifelong learners.”

She said Niagara and Erie counties have a higher rate of obesity among adults than other counties across the state. It was part of the data they used to receive the grant.

She said health teachers are on board with nutrition programs as part of the curriculum.

“A good phys ed program is diversified,” Bullis said. “It offers many, many different types of programs, so that when a student leaves here, they can find one of those activities that they really like and continue with it.”