For fifth-grader D'Angelo Bryant, gym class at Sunray Elementary School always meant the same thing: basketball, football or kickball.
Not that the trim, fit 11-year-old minded. He loves sports and plans to play on some competitive teams.
But to say D'Angelo was wowed by his school's new fitness room, complete with light free weights and cardio machines, wouldn't do justice.
"I love doing my cardio," D'Angelo said, as he jumped onto an elliptical cross trainer after working his biceps and triceps, the theme song from Rocky III pumping in the background. "I did all of the strength exercises 20 times for my arms. Now I'm going to get my legs. … This is great."
Sunray students from kindergarten through fifth grade, from couch potato to avid athlete, have cheered getting the chance to trim down, bulk up or just get fit twice a week in the fitness room.
"I've never been so excited about exercising," said 10-year-old Luke Harris, breathing harder than usual as he challenged himself on the stair stepper. "It seemed sort of boring. … But this actually makes me want to exercise."
That's the reaction coach Scott Carlson had hoped for when he and principal Lee Anne Yerkey came up with the idea for the fitness room over the summer.
"I'm hoping for them it will lead to lifetime skills," said Carlson, Sunray's 2010 teacher of the year.
He mentioned President Barack Obama's creation of a task force to focus on improving children's health, with an emphasis on good eating and exercise. Carlson figured what he's doing fits in neatly with that direction.
It wasn't what he ever expected to be able to do, though. Then came a summertime meeting where things started to click.
"My principal said, 'We have two vacant rooms. One could be a fitness lab, one could be a health room,' " he recalled. "It was up to me. This was like a dream come true. It's amazing."
Carlson attended a workshop with trainers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the University of South Florida Bulls, and came away with the idea of creating the gym. It became real with donations from himself and community members.
And the kids love it.
Cyndi Dryce's fifth-grade students hung on Carlson's every word during a recent class as he described how to perform some new triceps and abdominal exercises. Everyone enthusiastically volunteered to help demonstrate.
After Carlson let them loose, they didn't stop until the 40-minute period expired. They worked hard and had loads of fun, even joking around as they exercised.
"Jose! Do you have an eight-pack?" 10-year-old Alyssa Pannabecker asked, as she watched classmate Jose Rivera stretch his abs.
"No, I have a four-pack," Jose, 11, responded with a laugh.
"It feels really good," 11-year-old Krystrianna McLain said as she raised 2-pound weights to work her lats. "I do this at my home sometimes."
"I think it's very neat," said McKenzie Saroukos, 10. "That a school like this is doing this is awesome. Very cool."
Sunray serves a heavily low-income group of students, with nearly 80 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. Especially on cold or rainy days, it has in the past had to cancel physical education classes when they were outdoors because many children did not have proper coats.
"This helps us with that mandatory 150 minutes of PE," Yerkey said, referring to the state's weekly requirement. "No more lost days."
The students said they want to keep coming back to shape up. For D'Angelo, that meant a chance to run rather than walk on the treadmill, and the ability to do more pushups using hand grips.
He got pretty worn out after about eight.
"Yeah. But I never give up," he said with a grin as the period ended. He walked by Yerkey, who watched from the side, and gave her a high five.
"I had an awesome day," he told the principal.
And that reaction, Carlson said, is the best reward of all.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.