Public schools have long been clearinghouses for fitness and nutrition initiatives in the United States. Since the 1960s, the President’s Challenge program has inspired kids to meet physical fitness benchmarks. Schoolchildren began to learn about the basic building blocks of a nutritious diet with the introduction of the food pyramid in the 1980s. First Lady Michelle Obama tours the nation promoting the ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative to fight childhood obesity. State and local governments continue to incentivize a variety of public health programs aimed at school-aged children through grants for innovative projects, i.e. planting community gardens. I interviewed Anna Eller, a fourth grade teacher at Tulsa’s Lee Elementary School, to learn about simple techniques teachers can employ at the classroom level to encourage kids to lead an active lifestyle and embrace healthy eating habits.
What made you interested in integrating fitness and nutrition education into your curriculum?
I just finished a Masters degree at OSU in Health and Human Performance, with an emphasis on Applied Exercise Science, so I’ve been exposed to the research on the childhood obesity epidemic. Also, my school, Lee Elementary, received grants as a Healthy Lifestyles School and our principal encouraged us to come up with ways to introduce the kids to health education. I had already observed the impact of unhealthy habits in my classroom – many of my kids were sluggish and unmotivated throughout the day.
How do you teach your kids about healthy lifestyles?
Mostly I try and lead by example. Whenever we do physical activities I’m out there running with them or playing soccer or basketball. I eat lunch with my class every few weeks and talk with them about what makes up a nutritious meal. We talk about food and fitness whenever the opportunity arises during the day and the kids know they get extra credit for bringing in current events articles about health and fitness.
Have you gotten extra funding from your school or spent your own money on fitness promotion?
Well, my school has spent money on special equipment and things but everything I do in my class is free. You don’t need a lot of money to teach kids how to be healthy, you just need to think outside the box. I use my imagination or get ideas from websites. With just a little bit of creativity teachers can make a big impact on their kids fitness with simple and fun activities.
Are you ever concerned that you are taking time away from academic subjects?
No, not at all. The activities I do with my students are usually integrated with academic lessons, like doing jumping jacks to multiplication tables. Or using stability balls in place of chairs at the students’ desks. [Click here to watch a KJRH News segment of Ms. Eller explaining the cognitive benefits of stability balls versus chairs in a classroom.]
How does your class react when you engage them like this?
They love it. They get a kick out of having me out there running around with them. They are amped about exercise and it’s great to see them noticing how their bodies change in a positive way. Their attitude improves when they are more active and they have more energy and are more interested during class.
Why do you think it’s important to teach young children about fitness and nutrition?
Kids are little sponges. They’re at an age where the habits they form can last for a lifetime. When you offer kids more healthful options, and inform their choices, you are also teaching them about individual responsibility and problem solving. I feel like I’m empowering them to make better choices to improve their lives long after they have moved on from my classroom.
Do you think there is a connection between unhealthy habits kids might be learning at this age and the growing obesity epidemic?
Definitely. What they learn at this age can have a multiplier effect throughout their lives. If they are only exposed to bad habits, then that will stick with them. What I try to do is instill in them a basic understanding of health and fitness and empower them to choose healthier habits, whether they are at school or at home. Making a dent in childhood obesity is as simple as that. If adults set a positive example and inspire kids to choose a better quality of life, the kids will take it from there.