Meeting the Health and Fitness Needs of Day School Students
The prevalence of hypokinetic (lifestyle-related) diseases in our community is staggering, and the statistics are irrefutable. Yet many Jewish schools across the country are not doing nearly enough to help remediate problems such as childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes (rarely seen in young people until recently), deficiencies in physical fitness, and a host of other health-related maladies associated with sedentary living and poor nutritional habits.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Toll of Sitting All Day” cites several studies referencing the health risks of sedentary lifestyles. According to the author, over 35 diseases can be attributed to inactivity, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. The famous Framingham Study on heart disease found the process of atherosclerotic plaque formation can begin as early as 12 years of age. These are problems that our students are certainly exposed to as well, and it behooves Jewish day schools that aim to cultivate the whole child to address the physical needs and wellbeing of our students along with the intellectual, social-emotional and other capacities.
First and foremost of concern to Jewish educators is that the time constraints of a dual-curriculum school typically do not support a comprehensive health/wellness program in the course of the daily schedule. Whether elementary, middle school or high school, this is always a major obstacle. Another obstacle is the policy that interscholastic sports can adequately replace a well planned health/wellness curriculum. The problem with this approach is that not all kids are sports-oriented, nor do they all have an interest in competition. Furthermore, we are doing our athletes a disservice by not adequately preparing them for the rigors of sport competition though fitness training and sports nutrition. The old adage that “you don’t play sports to get in shape, you get in shape to play sports” is still sound advice. In addition, there are budgetary constraints of hiring full-time health and physical education professionals who can develop and implement an effective curriculum, secure adequate space, and the necessary equipment.
At the American Hebrew Academy, a boarding high school, we have chosen to devote our resources toward the inculcation of fitness for all students, equal to or above our emphasis on team sports. All of our students are required to participate in fitness (activity) classes, which require no prerequisite skill, while team sports participation is optional. This goes against the grain of most college prep schools that require team sport participation, but not health or fitness education. We require at least one trimester of fitness training per year throughout high school. In order to accommodate the schedules of students who are involved in other programs, we offer these fitness electives after school and/or at lunch time, and we have created a “double” lunch period for this purpose. This allows students who are committed after school to sports or theater to get their fitness training during the day.
Our classes on physical wellbeing also provide opportunities for many of our students. We require our 9th and 10th graders to take a course called Wellness during our daily block schedule. Freshmen wellness includes units on stress management, nutrition, aerobic and anaerobic training, drug education, human sexuality and disease prevention. The sophomore wellness curriculum expands this course of study to include sports nutrition, anatomy and kinesiology, and prevention and care of injuries along with CPR and First Aid. We also have an advanced sports medicine elective for upperclassmen who might want to pursue this field of study in college. Athletes may earn their fitness credit through sport participation, but everyone must take Wellness I and II.
As for budgetary constraints, our board and administration have incorporated a philosophy of health, wellness and sports into our school’s mission. This is where it has to begin! A concerted commitment to a holistic approach of educating our students mind, body, and spirit is needed from the top down.
Schools with fewer resources have adopted a wellness approach by implementing grade appropriate classes and/or assemblies weekly or monthly with outside consultants. While this saves time and money, and addresses hot topics such as nutritional counseling, eating disorders, stress management, drug education and bullying, it does not ensure the same level of instruction as a regular class with assessments, teacher feedback and student/teacher interaction. There are schools that require one semester of health/wellness each year in middle school and high school, while others require just one credit or course for the entire four years of high school.
The issue is not just the need to address current hot topics in health; the larger challenge is how to correct a disturbing trend of sedentary young people with fitness levels below that of healthy and active senior citizens. We have seen many students who can’t complete a mile run or walk, can’t do a push up or a dozen sit ups, and have no concept of sound nutritional principals.
Most Jewish schools have a commitment to team sports because it promotes a sense of community and ruach and benefits the school by attracting student athletes who, according to many studies, will perform better academically, in leadership capacities, and in terms of representing their school to the outside community. We athletic directors look for these students and want these programs to thrive. However, sports practices generally do not include fitness training or nutrition education during the sport season. Coaches spend most of their practice time working on skills and strategy.
Parents rely on us to educate their children in core subjects, Jewish studies and Hebrew. Unfortunately, it seems that educating the student in terms of health and wellness is not an important priority. Sadly, many of our athletes have season-ending or career-ending injuries that could have been prevented with the proper education. Or through proper training, student athletes could earn college scholarships or get into schools of choice because of the development of these special skills or talents. Many private school parents leave this component of their child’s education to personal trainers, health clubs or even Internet fitness fads or gimmicks. Why should they have to go outside of school for this information and education? Our students are spending eight to ten hours a day at day at our schools (sometimes longer). Doesn’t the student in theater, band or afterschool art class have the same fitness needs as our athletes? Why is this not important for the entire student body as well as the athletes?
We have a responsibility to make health and wellness education a priority and not leave it up to families to figure it out on their own. While competitive sports and fitness are not mutually exclusive, they are also not the same thing. Not yet mentioned are the fields of study and career opportunities available in health and wellness. As a college preparatory Jewish school, should we not make available subject matter that could lead our students into occupations such as sports medicine, nutrition counseling, personal training, cardiac rehab, athletic training and physical therapy?
Exercise is one of the most widely prescribed interventions for everything from depression to diabetes to allergies to hypertension, but it’s the least emphasized academic subject in schools. We should not only be teaching fitness, we should be teaching fitness for life.