Using the American Fitness Index in the Classroom: Strategies and Lessons Learned

The American Fitness Index is a valuable tool and resource to researchers and practitioners alike. As an educator, I believe it has a place in the classroom as well. I teach an undergraduate upper-level, small class titled Physical Activity and Public Health. Throughout the semester we cover many topics including physical activity epidemiology, measurement, public health approaches and the role of community, environment and policy in promoting physical activity and health. The students are well versed in how the health and behaviors of a community can be influenced by the resources and supports available.

Typically, I have used the  Fitness Index as a part of the capstone activity in the class for group project (four to five students per group). I provide a general overview of the Fitness Index framework, discuss the types of data (e.g. health, behavioral, environmental variables) and what the communities may do with the information. Since the two largest cities in our state are covered within the Fitness Index, I have a list of the eight next largest cities in our state (to ensure that there is adequate data available) for the students to pick from for their community of focus. Once their community is selected, the fun can begin.

Using spreadsheet templates I created, the students explore their community and document all the variables included in the Fitness Index summary reports (Personal Health Indicators, Community/Environment Indicators) using the same data sources as the Fitness Index. Once the students completed their spreadsheets we were able to compare the communities in class to get an idea of how the communities measured up against each other, as well as the communities included in the Fitness Index.

While the groups completed their spreadsheets, I recruited a community stakeholder from each of the communities. These individuals were typically people who were well connected in the community for health-related issues (e.g. health department official, health-related non-profit worker, community hospital representative). As a class we discussed some general questions they would ask their stakeholder and then they built an interview guide and a few members of the group interviewed the individual.

To complete the project the groups compiled all of their findings in a report in the style of the Fitness Index summary using a template I provided. Then they wrote a letter to their stakeholder outlining the results, summarizing strengths and areas of opportunity for the community and listing possible resources for making improvements. The report and the letter were shared with their stakeholder. The project finished off with a class presentation where they shared all of their findings.

Student feedback from the project was overwhelmingly positive; most reported that they appreciated having real data to learn from, that their community stakeholder provided valuable insight to how to interpret and apply their findings, and they were excited to learn about how the communities would use their data. Some quotes from students about this project can be found here.

Lessons Learned

The most challenging part of the project was the recruitment of community stakeholders. Some communities had an abundance of possibilities, with several potential eager partners, while other communities had lackluster interest from possible partners and even once recruited didn’t follow up with the students in a timely manner to meet deadlines. Having some pre-arranged community contacts from other research activities and previous class projects was helpful and I would highly recommend it. Another challenging aspect of the project was teaching students to use publicly available datasets and resources to complete their spreadsheets. We used some class time to walk through this, and I would suggest planning for some class time to allow for overcoming some of these challenges. Lastly, I can’t stress enough the importance of providing templates to be able to have organized and useable data and reports that cover all of the aspects of the Fitness Index. Additional information on my experience in using the Fitness Index in the classroom can be found here.

The Fitness Index is a valuable teaching tool and I encourage you to be creative in designing assignments to use this framework. There are many valuable student learning outcomes from participating in a Fitness Index project that I hope you can explore.

Author: Melissa Bopp, Ph.D., FACSM is an associate professor and director of the undergraduate program in Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University. She is a fellow of ACSM, co-chair of the Built Environment and Active Transportation Special Interest Group and member of the Health Science Policy committee. Her research is focused on the role of community, environment and policy in promoting physical activity for all populations. Twitter: @MelissaBopp_PhD

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