Kate Bajorek, left, an Ohio University undergraduate studying exercise physiology, works with Catherine "Cece" Yanes, who is wearing a device that measures her respiration during physical activity.

Illustration by: College of Health Sciences and Professions

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Faculty and students building a better recess

The schoolchildren have boundless energy when compared to their older counterparts during the game of tag, considering that they are suited up in what looks to be scuba gear.  A facemask hooks to a lightweight backpack and, despite the cumbersome look of the equipment, the only complaints about discomfort come when the mask fogs up.

This high-tech children’s game is part of a study headed by Cheryl Howe, assistant professor of exercise physiology in the School of Applied Health Sciences and Wellness, part of the College of Health Sciences and Professions. The goal: building a better recess period.

The study measures the energy expended and level of enjoyment for kids from ages 8 to 12 during times of play, Howe said. Its data will add to the Youth Compendium of Physical Activity being developed by a group in Australia. The compendium identifies the amount of energy children consume during physical activity, and it will be used to develop more effective recesses and types of exercise for kids.

“There is already a comprehensive list for adults of the energy cost of different activities, from game to workplace tasks. They’re now developing a similar list for children,” Howe said, for whom there is a relative scarcity of such data.

Brett Winner, an exercise physiology graduate student involved in the study, jokingly characterized the 12 Ohio University students involved in the program as “designated tag players.” But, beneath the surface, they are gaining practical research experience while also getting in touch with their inner child.

“(All of the OHIO students) serve as playmates,” Howe said. “They’ve had to learn how to play like eight- to 12-year-olds again.”

While the research looks to be all fun and games, it is providing valuable information and assistance in a region whose childhood obesity rates are 3 percent higher than the national average, Howe said.

“The study provides a community service to (Athens County) schools,” she said. “It will provide a health benefit to the students and aids in obesity prevention. It will serve as a connection between Ohio University and the community.”

The gathering of data on children’s energy expenditure has been held back by a lack of the necessary technology, Howe said. That changed with the development of the portable “scuba” suits – each costing $25,000 – that the young subjects wear. The suit, called an Oxycon Mobile, is manufactured by an Italian company and allows for a more comfortable and natural play experience.  It measures oxygen intake and carbon dioxide production, variables that are used to measure metabolism and energy expenditure.

Howe said that prior to development of the suit; children were tested much like the athletes in sports drink commercials, relegated to running on a treadmill while hooked up to an array of tubes and wires. While the kids may look like miniature astronauts in the suits, they are at least free to run around. They seem to hardly notice the lightweight backpack and face mask once playtime begins.

Kelly Ticknor, an undergraduate studying exercise physiology, worked with local physical education teachers to develop games that the children would find the most fun. Prospective activities were tested at local schools in The Plains and Chauncey, with kids registering their enjoyment factor on a scale of smiley faces.

The study began in late June and will finish by March. The goal is to study 60 subjects: 15 each in the categories of overweight and healthy-weight boys and girls. Until then, the OHIO students will be hard at work trying to keep up with their young subjects.

“The first time I came, I played way too hard and wore myself out,” said Winner. “Sometimes you need a substitute.”