The concept of using heart rate in the physical education setting is far from new. The earliest reference that I found to utilizing pulse counting in physical education within the research literature was from the early 1930s. Floyd and Van Horn (1932) wrote of physical education teachers being responsible for calculating the pulse rates of sick students during various physical achievement tests in order to help their doctors make a more informed diagnosis of their condition as well as if/when they could return to full activity within class. Using pulse rate to calculate exercise intensity continued to be practiced within physical education during the 1940s. Dawson (1942) writes of different physical fitness tests that were used in conjunction with calculating pulse rates before, during and after the tests to help determine levels of students’ cardiovascular fitness. This trend of utilizing pulse rate mainly for the purpose of fitness testing within physical education continued into the next few decades.
With technological advancements being made during the mid twentieth century in all aspects of life, technological solutions to measure heart rate were no exception. Faulkner, Greey and Hunsicker (1963) mention that they used a portable twin-electrode Sanborn Visette Model 300 to calculate the heart rates of all students in a physical education class, one a time, at different periods throughout class in order to conduct their research (click here if you want to see what that machine looked like). This was a significant development in heart rate technology because researchers were now able to take laboratory-grade measurement equipment out into the field due to its portability. In the 1970s, the first patent worldwide was filed by Polar Electro for a battery operated fingertip heart rate monitoring device, which was another step forward in terms of making heart rate monitoring a measurement option for physical education programs across the country.
However, the real game changer for heart rate within the physical education setting came in the early to mid 1980s with the addition of a wireless heart rate monitor capable of collecting data as well as being able to download that data onto a computer for the first time in history. It was then that a woman teaching middle school physical education in Vinton, Iowa who wanted to do things a little differently in her program would start a journey that has since changed our profession forever (click here for a video to get a better grasp on the importance of this step forward).
Her name is Beth Kirkpatrick. Beth got her hands on these wireless heart rate monitors simply by contacting the company that made them (Polar Electro) and asking if she could have some to use within her classes. They obliged. Using these wireless heart rate monitors, Beth was able to completely restructure how she did everything within her teaching. No longer was the focus of her program on sports, but now thanks to the addition of the heart rate monitors, it was on individual achievement/fitness for life. Since these monitors had the capability of collecting the students’ data, and in turn, the ability to download said data onto the computer within individual student folders, Beth had created the first data-driven physical education program in the country. She has become known as the pioneer of heart rate monitoring in physical education for good reason.
From the mid 1980s to about 2010 Polar continued to have a monopoly on heart rate monitoring technology. However, during this time frame, heart rate monitors as a group solution for physical education kind of stagnated a bit. Sure, there were some advances made such as increasing the amount of data storage present on the wrist receivers themselves, faster methods of data transmission to computers as well as more advanced programs to analyze the data, but these changes were not enough to keep up with the pace of how fast the needs of students, teachers, PE programs and schools themselves were changing. Whether this stagnation was a result of Polar having a monopoly on the market, a lack of future-thinking or something else, I am not sure.
This stagnation led to frustration and made it less and less practical for PE teachers to incorporate group heart rate monitoring platforms into their teaching for a variety of reasons. The standard chest strap transmitters that existed during this time frame were difficult to manage from a teacher standpoint. Chest straps were also seen as a very invasive way to collect data and some schools/districts wanted no part of them. PE Manager, Polar’s data management program, wasn’t the least bit user friendly and it took me a year myself of using it every single day to learn the ins and outs of it. Unfortunately for Polar, this lead to a lot of PE teachers being turned off by their products all together and the shortcomings they brought on themselves opened up opportunities for other companies to move in.
By 2012, the mobile device/app development revolution was in full swing. Tech startups were popping up all over the country and just like in every other market space, sometimes all it takes is a bit of competition to spark innovation and progress. The heart rate monitor industry was no exception. Plenty of new companies specializing in individual wearable heart rate technology as well as group heart rate monitoring solutions were making a name for themselves. Localized data management computer programs went by the wayside as everything has become web/cloud-based in order to be accessed from anywhere, at any time, with any device. Chest straps are now an antiquated relic of the past as these new companies have done the research and development necessary to create sensors that are now able to be worn on the wrist/forearm. These new type of sensors have the ability to transmit heart rate data in real time via Bluetooth/ANT+ to a centralized iPad that the teacher has, allowing them to see exactly how hard each of their students is working during any given moment in class. These changes were needed as our profession continued to evolve, and as such, 21st century methods of data collection were necessary to keep ourselves relevant in the educational landscape. The last few years have been exciting to say the least as the things that were once thought of only as a pipe dream are becoming more and more real.
In my opinion, the one thing that will set one of these companies above the rest is their willingness to listen to the PE teachers that are in the trenches every day. At the end of the day, we as PE teachers know what a heart rate monitoring platform needs to have within it, both on the hardware and software side of things for it to be functional, feasible and valuable to our students and programs. I myself as well as some of my close PE colleagues (who all have extensive knowledge and years of experience of using heart rate monitors in elementary, middle, high school and college settings) have tried to make suggestions to various companies about updates we would like to see made in order to make their heart rate system more of a complete fit in the K-12 space. Most of the time our suggestions got blown off by “the powers that be” at these companies. For whatever reasons, most of these companies think they know better than teachers. I say most because there has been one and only one company that has truly embraced the idea of seeing the heart rate system development process as a partnership between themselves and teachers. That company is Heart Tech Plus (click here for website).
While Heart Tech Plus is rather new on the scene (they were founded in 2015) and may not yet have as much notoriety as some of the bigger companies, they are more than willing to listen to suggestions that educators have to make their products better. Having been stonewalled and shutdown so much with other companies, this to me is worth its weight in gold. In the past 6 months that my colleagues and I have had a relationship with Heart Tech Plus, they have already taken a few our ideas and put them into action. That to me says a lot of about their vision for the future. At the end of the day, it is collaboration that drives progress forward and Heart Tech Plus understands this.
In terms of group solutions for your PE program’s heart rate system needs, I encourage you to do your due diligence and research before making a purchase. A system that works in one school/program may not necessarily be the best fit in another for a variety of reasons. Your best bet? Reach out to other PE teachers that use a variety of different systems and get their thoughts on it. Ask them to be honest and to tell you the pros and the cons that they have come across as they have used the system day in and day out. The more information you have at hand, the better the position you are in to make a decision. Food for thought…
Dawson, P. M. (1942). Studies and measures of physical fitness. The Journal of Health and Physical Education, 13(8), 446-447 & 493-494.
Faulkner, J., Greey, G., & Hunsicker, P. (1963). Heart rate during physical education periods. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 34(1), 95-98.
Floyd, M. B., & Van Horn, M. (1932). Exercise in relation to cardiac cases. Mind and Body: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Physical Education, 39(408), 204-211.