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Oral Roberts University freshmen are all wearing fitness trackers in pioneer program

Friday, January 08, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Melinda Dorning

Eden Watson can tell you exactly how many steps she has taken today, and how many minutes of aerobic exercise she has accumulated this week.

The Oral Roberts University freshman is not alone. All 900 incoming students at ORU can do the same thing, and the school itself has access to each student’s data.

Watson, a 2015 graduate of Jenks High School, is part of a pioneer program that requires all incoming freshmen at ORU to wear Fitbit health and fitness tracking watches on their wrists to record their heart rate and physical activity all day, every day.

The devices are not new. They have been popular with fitness advocates for some time.

And ORU’s emphasis on mandatory physical fitness is not new. It’s part of the school’s whole-person educational philosophy initiated a half century ago by the university’s founder, the late Oral Roberts.

But what is new is ORU’s seamless integration of Fitbit data into the university’s computer-based grading system.

Until this year, ORU students carried paper notebooks with them to record their exercise, and professors in mandatory fitness classes had to laboriously transcribe the numbers from the students’ notebooks into the school’s grading system. Students are graded on their performance in fitness regimens.

Under the new system, expected to save faculty members hundreds of hours each semester, fitness data is recorded continually by the Fitbit, downloaded by the students via a smart phone or computer into a cloud-based database maintained by Fitbit, and accessed by the university.

“ORU offers one of the most unique educational approaches in the world by focusing on the whole person — mind, body and spirit,” said ORU President William M. Wilson.

“The marriage of new technology with our physical fitness requirements is something that sets ORU apart. In fact, when we began this innovative program in the fall of 2015, we were the first university in the world to offer this unique approach to a fitness program.”

Mike Mathews, who oversees all of the university’s data systems, was instrumental in developing the program.

“Our university is world renowned for its focus on body, mind and spirit, and ranks in the top five healthiest universities in America,” he said.

The new system provides a far more accurate picture of whether students are reaching fitness goals.

And it will enable the university to grade students based more on their weekly exercise and less on the end-of-semester field test, usually a 1½-mile run for freshmen.

The system works no matter where the students are.

“Our students can be in Africa for spring break and the system will still be recording data,” he said

As data is collected over the next several years, the university will be able to determine if there is a correlation between exercise and academic success, Mathews said.

“No other school is doing what we’re doing. No other school is capable of bringing the data into their system,” he said.

Jon Anderson, chief enterprise and digital strategist at ORU, developed the system that allows Fitbit data to be integrated into the school’s grading system.

No commercial version of the system is available that will do that, he said.

Watson, who was a cheerleader at Jenks High School last year, said she likes the program because it “keeps you healthier and happier, and keeps you accountable. … It keeps me motivated to exercise more.”

She said just walking around campus meets the university’s goal for 10,000 steps taken each day, and she jogs or does other cardio exercise to meet the aerobic goal of having an elevated heart rate for the required number of minutes each week.

She said her fellow freshmen at ORU generally accept the Fitbit program, and “think it’s cool.”

Some students who have never worked out can feel overwhelmed having to work out as part of their grade, Watson said.

“Fitness is a lifestyle change, and that’s always a challenge,” Anderson said.

Christian Monsalve, a freshman from the Dallas area majoring in exercise science, said he uses a Fitbit app on his phone to monitor whether he is meeting the fitness requirements.

He said at first it was a challenge because he wasn’t as aware of the time management that was needed, but now it has become routine.

“If I’m short, I just go to the gym and get it up to where it needs to be,” Monsalve said.

He said his resting heart rate has improved since he came to ORU.

The freshmen who began the Fitbit program last fall will stay on it, and incoming freshmen will be added to it, so that in four years, the entire student body will be on it.

Upper classmen who have started on the paper recording system will have the option of staying with that or recording their exercise regimen on the Fitbit.

The on-campus bookstore has sold more than 550 of the wearable watches with more being purchased through other retailers.

Students will buy the Fitbit, priced about $140 and up, just as they buy textbooks. Fitbit is one of several makers of wearable fitness monitoring devices.

ORU is not alone in mandatory use of such devices. American businesses are looking at health-and-fitness tracking devices as a way of promoting a healthier lifestyle for their employees in the face of rising medical costs.

The Huffington Post reported that in 2013, 2,000 firms gave employees fitness trackers and that in 2014, that number went up to 10,000.

Target Corp. announced this fall that it would offer Fitbit trackers to 335,000 U.S. employees.

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