Developing lifelong habits key to fitness and health

It’s not your parents’ gym class anymore.

At Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese, including St. Margaret Mary in Omaha, Archbishop Bergan in Fremont, St. Mary in O’Neill and St. Augustine in Winnebago, teachers are using innovative techniques to make fitness fun and keep students moving.

Scooter soccer, disc golf, drumming for fitness, and ballroom and creative dance, for example, are taking their place alongside traditional sports such as soccer, basketball and volleyball at St. Margaret Mary School’s physical education classes.

And other teachers get students up and moving, sometimes with jumping jacks, or "brain breaks" using brief, follow-along exercise videos, said Sheri Cohen Vollmer, physical education teacher at the school, a 2016 winner of the Let’s Move! Active Schools National Award, presented by former First Lady Michelle Obama's Let’s Move! program.

"Exercise gets the blood pumping and stimulates the brain," Cohen Vollmer said. "Research shows that if they sit for 20 minutes and then are up moving, even if it’s only five minutes, they’re going to do better in school."

The goals at each school remain the same: Get students excited about exercise and nutrition so they develop good, lifelong habits, even as they learn teamwork and good sportsmanship.


Exercise and faith

It also impacts faith, Cohen Vollmer said.

"God gave us the gift of life, so showing respect for one’s body by eating correctly and exercising is important," she said. "We also teach students that they should develop the talents God gave them so they can share them with their peers."

Another 2016 Let’s Move! winner, Archbishop Bergan, also stresses the need for activity – in the classroom, as well as on the gym floor – by encouraging every teacher to help students move. Some elementary school classes use exercise balls instead of chairs so students can move around, and at the high school, standup desks are being considered, said Wyatt Morse, physical education teacher.

At St. Augustine School, third-grade teacher Amber Gamble said getting students to move is key. Her students, for example, use exercise stations during physical education classes, rotating from activity to activity.

"And in the mornings, we also do a health run, where every class comes up to the gym – first kindergarten through third grades, then fourth through eighth – and runs for five minutes," she said. "It wakes them up and gets them ready for the day, and the kids love it."

"We have a lot of kids who love their video games," Gamble said, "and they can sit for hours, so even if it’s just two times a week for 45 minutes, physical education can help with diabetes and obesity."

Morse agreed that obesity in the United States has become a serious issue.



"Kids are starting to develop type 2 diabetes at a young age, and that creates lifelong health issues," he said. "It starts with physical inactivity, but it also involves nutrition."

So all students, kindergarten through sixth grade, learn about nutrition, with homework that also involves the parents in projects they can work on together to understand the importance of eating well, he said.

Cohen Vollmer also strives to make students responsible for their own fitness. Beginning in third grade, students learn and select from a range of exercises to warm up before physical education class, she said. They also keep a journal of their activity so they can see their progress.

The school promotes recess for all grades, a run club before and after school, and a run-jump-and-throw program to prepare upper level students for high school track and field.

And at St. Mary School in O’Neill, students learn the rules of the games by serving as referees, line judges and scorekeepers, while also developing physical skills through exercise and team sports, said Phillip Baumgart, physical education teacher.

The school also holds a track day at the end of the school year for elementary school students, and during Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, fifth- and sixth-grade students will use their creativity to create and play their own games, he said.

Classes such as physical education also provide the break students need in their day, Cohen Vollmer said. "It keeps them engaged – especially those students who struggle academically. This can be their time to shine.

"If you can get kids having fun, it gets them excited about fitness," she said. "We want to get kids excited about exercise so when they leave these doors, they have been given such good lifetime skills that they continue this throughout their lives."


Fourth-graders Ian Carson and Kate Gering practice martial arts as part of their physical education class at St. Margaret Mary School in Omaha.


First-graders Keigan Couch, left in front row, Jaiya Johnson and Seth Popkes, and in the back row, John Mlnarik, Ryder Kelly, Waylon Scofield and Christopher Koehlmoos, warm up at St. Mary School in O’Neill with jumping jacks before a physical education class Jan. 17.

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