Fitness

New gym class curriculum makes workout routines fun for kids

Photography by Peter Tucker Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Peter Tucker

Fitness

New gym class curriculum makes workout routines fun for kids

Things have changed since the days of tough-talking, whistle-wielding gym teachers who high-fived the jocks as the athletically challenged kids trembled in their tracksuits. With one in four Canadian children being overweight or obese, some schools are finding imaginative ways to get Generation Text on the move.

In Golden, B.C., kids from Alexander Park Elementary School take walks by the Kicking Horse River. Teenagers from St. Peter’s Academy in tiny Benoit’s Cove, N.L., glide across shiny ponds during school canoe trips. At École Pine Grove Public School in Oakville, Ont., students juggle pins, scarves and rings. "Physical activity doesn’t have to mean sports," says Jennifer Benoit, a physical education teacher in Niagara Falls, Ont. "It’s not just for the athletes anymore."

Here are three other Canadian schools with heart-pumping programs that are inspiring kids to fall in love with fitness – for life.

Why fitness fun is important
When 14-year-old Ainsley Dubowec didn’t make the top volleyball team at Henry G. Izatt Middle School in Winnipeg, her dreams of glory on the court weren’t crushed. Unlike many schools in Canada, HGI has a no-cuts sports policy for grades 5 to 8. So Ainsley blocked and bumped for the B team. "If you don’t make the A team, you’re not necessarily one of the worst players," she says. "You can develop, and maybe make the team next year."

A school of almost 600 kids, HGI has a vigorous sports program. In Grade 6 alone, 50 girls play on five volleyball teams. "It would be hypocritical of us to tell the students to stay active and then tell them they can’t be on our teams," says gym teacher Tracy Payne-Barrett. "The message that would send is that they’re not deserving of our gym space and time. That would be a tragedy."

The school also promotes sportfree fitness. A classroom was converted into a fitness room with exercise bikes, stability balls and other equipment. Skipping, skiing, juggling and yoga are part of gym classes. And every kid at HGI has learned a hip-hop dance. The goal, says Payne-Barrett, is "to make everyone feel like they have a place in the gym."

Page 1 of 3 -- Check out how other Canadian schools are changing gym classes to help all kids embrace and appreciate exercise on page 2

"I had goose bumps," she says. "It was just the best feeling ever." The class was part of Females Using Energy for Life (FUEL), a program used in 13 schools in the Niagara region of Ontario.

Girls get together once a week for Zumba, Pilates and other adrenaline-charged, noncompetitive aerobic fun. It’s a chance to let loose, forget the fellas and focus on fitness. "You don’t have to show off when it’s only girls," says Chelsea Futers, a 17-year-old student at the school. "You get to be goofy. You work out without any inhibitions, and that’s just the most amazing thing."

Exercise empowers teenage girls
Kendra Harle and Sarah Leyenaar of Niagara Region Public Health adapted FUEL as a way of pumping up girl power. "I saw girls in unhealthy relationships, with low self-esteem, drug use, alcohol use and poor decision-making around sexual health," says Harle, a school nurse. "The more active girls are, the better choices they make."

The enthusiastic teens who participate in FUEL have become their own kind of team, wearing bright pink T-shirts and setting up flashy display boards. And the girls are excited about trying activities such as Zumba and Pilates for the first time.

"They’re committed, and they’re getting to know more people," says Leyenaar, who is a health promoter. "They feel better about themselves. That’s the best success story."

Find motivated volunteers to start a FUEL program at your kids' school
Programs like FUEL could ignite change beyond the Niagara region. People in places from Nova Scotia to Alberta have contacted Leyenaar to learn more about the program. She says success starts with great volunteers – and teachers who are passionate about inspiring girls.

"Working with youth is amazing, but it’s also challenging," Leyenaar says. "You need someone who’s able to motivate them."

Page 2 of 3 -- Discover how treadmills and excercise bikes transformed another Canadian classroom and helped students perform better in school on page 3
Workout routines improve classroom performances
Five years ago, Allison Cameron decided to make her students sweat. She added treadmills and exercise bikes to her classroom at City Park Collegiate in Saskatoon and loaded up on deodorant sticks. A few kids were baffled. Four kids swore at her, one boy more than once. But eventually, the class warmed up to working out.

"It felt good," says Devon Nagy, now an 18-year-old Grade 12 student. "After each workout, you would be tired, but you focused on your work more."

And helping kids find that focus was exactly the goal of Cameron’s program, called Movement Matters. Many students at City Park have learning disabilities, mental health problems or other issues that make it hard to succeed in school. Once the treadmills and bikes had their blood rushing for 20 minutes, Cameron would have the kids crack open their books. Suddenly, teens who used to have trouble concentrating were finishing assignments.

"If I had not been in this room to witness it," Cameron says, "I wouldn’t have believed that kind of drastic change can happen that quickly."

Fitness fun boosts kids' brainpower
When she was a new teacher working at another school, Cameron realized exercise can boost brainpower and help calm students. One of Cameron’s Grade 7 students was kicked off the school bus for fighting and other inappropriate behaviour, so his mother drove him to school early each day. Not knowing what else to do with him before class, Cameron took him running.

"Then I noticed," she says, "that his days were much better." Cameron has added more bikes and treadmills at City Park Collegiate. She says the workouts make kids more confident, help them keep fit and get them closer to graduation.

Teachers benefit from new fitness cirriculum too
Cameron says fitness in classrooms can work anywhere – but only if teachers are willing to lace up their sneakers, too. "When you’re on a treadmill side by side with students, they let their guard down, and relationships form that I would never have dreamed of," she says. "Everybody has something to gain."

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This story was originally titled "Gym Class Heroes" in the June 2012 issue.

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New gym class curriculum makes workout routines fun for kids

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