Fit for Life

Area schools are building a culture of health through district wellness

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Students perform a flexible pose during a yoga club at the Pottstown Middle School. Area school districts are building a culture of health through wellness policies. Michilea Patterson — Digital First Media

By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury

The month of January not only brings a New Year but it also comes with a slew of healthy resolutions and fitness goals. Unfortunately by the time February comes around, many of those aspirations have disappeared. Area school districts are going beyond New Year’s resolutions by making healthy living part of a culture instead of just a trend.

Pottstown Middle School in Montgomery County allows students to attend clubs of different interests during school hours on specific days. Many of the clubs have a health and wellness focus. There’s a running club, advanced physical education club, yoga club and lots more. Students learn how to relieve stress and decompress during a mindfulness club which includes education on social and emotional learning. A wrestling club teaches the basics of the physical activity and is used as a conditioning opportunity for middle school students involved in other sports.

Pottstown Middle School Principal David Todd leads the jujitsu club as he has been practicing the Japanese martial art since he was eight years old.

“Jujitsu club is about balance, focus, concentration and self-discipline,” he said.

Todd said the clubs are part of the school district’s wellness initiative and they allow students to have a physical brain break during the school day. Students are able to use their energy in a positive way while also building relationships with teachers over more than just academics, he said.

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Ian Acosta, 11, smiles for the camera as he accepts a sauteed Brussels sprout from Chef Richard Ray at East Vincent Elementary. Owen J. Roberts School District celebrated “Go for the Greens” week. Digital First Media File Photo

Another school district that’s encouraging a healthy culture is Owen J. Roberts of Chester County. The district offers several healthy opportunities for students including an initiative that uses fun and creative methods to get kids to try healthy vegetables. The district does a “Go for the Greens” event every year around St. Patrick’s Day where students are encouraged to try a green plant-based food such as broccoli. Adults dress up as the vegetable and a food service comes during cafeteria hours to cook up the healthy green food. Jo-an Rechtin, the district’s community engagement consultant and wellness coordinator, said it helps children to expand their food preferences beyond pizza and French fries. Rechtin said many of the students will go back home and ask their parents to prepare the healthy vegetable they tasted during lunch.

“Moms email me all the time and ask ‘what did you do?’” Rechtin said adding that the parents will say their kids asked for broccoli and they want to know what the “secret magic potion” was.

“It’s one of the things I’m most happy about as far as culture,” she said.

“Culture of Health” is a phrase that’s becoming popular nationally due to organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The foundation is based in New Jersey and its main focus is to improve the health of communities across the nation. The foundation started a movement to build a culture of health. The foundation’s website states that by making health part of a culture, it encourages everyone in the nation to engage in healthy activities now and in the future.

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Student do activities such as push-ups, running through a floor ladder and squats as part of an advanced physical education club at Pottstown Middle School.

 

Howard Brown said the phrase “Culture of Health” means something different to everyone but he believes it’s about stakeholders, community members and students alike having access to health education and wellness opportunities in order to achieve healthy lifestyles. “It’s where all stakeholders and community members are working together to achieve that,” Brown said.

Brown is the program officer of schools, active learning and community development at the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation. The local foundation’s coverage area includes parts of Montgomery, Chester and Berks Counties.

Brown said a culture of health has become a big focus in recent years as a result of alarming national health statics such as obesity rates. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were either overweight or obese, according to the CDC. In 2012, the obesity rate had doubled for children and quadrupled for adolescents compared to rates 30 years ago. Brown said numbers such as these are the reason why it’s so important to create a culture of health within schools.

“Apart from their homes, children spend more time at school than any other place,” he said.

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Students raise their hands to the sky as part of a stretch during a yoga club at Pottstown Middle School.

Brown said schools are a great way to get children to embrace health and wellness. He said more and more research shows that healthy school environments result in better health of the students and improved academic achievement.

In March 2016, RWJF held a forum about how to make healthy school environments the norm across the nation. A report about the forum stated that healthy schools help children create foundations for “physical, social and emotional health.”

The CDC has a Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model which was formed through collaborations with leaders in the fields of health, public health, education and school health. The CDC’s website page about the model stated that getting people to form healthy behaviors as children is much easier than getting them to change unhealthy behaviors as adults.

“Schools play a critical role in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behavior patterns. Research shows a link between the health outcomes of young people and their academic success,” stated the CDC website.

The CDC website also states that nutrition needs to be included in a healthy school environment and included recommendations on how schools can incorporate healthy eating policies. When it comes to classroom celebrations and events, the CDC suggest parents and the school work together to provide only healthy foods during such occasions or offer nonfood items as a reward.

The Rose Tree Media School District of Delaware County explains the importance and some of the guidelines of their wellness policy on their website. The district created a policy in response to a federal mandate for participants of the National School Lunch Program. One particular policy guideline addresses “other foods” available to students during the school day.

“All foods available in district schools during the school day shall be offered to students with consideration for promoting student health and reducing childhood obesity,” the website states quoting the district’s wellness policy.

In addition to encouraging nutritious eating, area school districts are also promoting physical fitness as part of their wellness policies. Washington Elementary School in Berks County has a Cubs on the Run program where children exercise several days a week as preparation for a 2K annual run. Holy Cross Regional School in Montgomery County uses a rock climbing wall during physical education classes. Students learn both physical and life skills by using the wall. The wall helps students to work on their strength, endurance and flexibility.

A July 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services studied the association between school-based physical activity and academic performance. The report examined the findings of 43 articles which reflected 50 research studies. Nine of those studies looked at the relationship between classroom fitness and academic performance. Of those nine studies, eight found a positive association between physical activity in the classroom and academic performance.

On their website, RWJF states that a culture of health can’t be achieved by just focusing on a community’s healthcare system. The website states that “complex social factors” can impact a person’s health which is why school environments are one of the ways to build a culture of health.

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