Every day, the consequences of our children's poor eating habits and lack of exercise and fitness is displayed in our schools. They are held back in their academics and extracurricular activities because they lack energy, concentration, stamina, comfort, agility, and self-confidence.
But the greatest price has yet to be paid, in the form of increased risk for a host of physical conditions, from obesity to diabetes to heart disease.
How Significant is This Issue?
For one, this is a social-emotional and character-development (SECD) issue. Schools influence students' eating habits and attitudes about health, fitness, and food. Schools also can influence parent attitudes and behaviors. Good health is an interpersonal endeavor, and standing up to negative peer pressure in order to make healthy choices requires strong SECD competencies.
Communications Director Amy Baron of HealthCorps believes:
"Obesity in the United States has reached epidemic proportions, with more than 35 percent of Americans classified as obese and an additional 30 percent as overweight. Obesity has been a steadily rising trend since the late 1970s. Recent reports, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's 'F Is for Fat 2009: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America,' highlight the critical call for action. Experts now predict that, without an intervention, the majority of the country will be obese by 2012."
Enter HealthCorps. Founded by the well-known Dr. Mehmet Oz, HealthCorps' mission is to activate American students and their families to become health agents of change in their communities. While you may know Dr. Oz as the host of the Daytime Emmy-nominated nationally syndicated talk show, "The Dr. Oz Show," and the author of popular books on health and fitness, he is also Vice-Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center.
In 2003, he conceived HealthCorps after finding himself operating on patients in their twenties who were in need of heart surgery due to poor lifestyle choices. He set out to save a generation of youth from sustaining shorter life spans than those of their parents.
How Does HealthCorps Work?
HealthCorps coordinators are the heart of program. "These recent college graduates defer entry into medical school or graduate health programs to participate in public service through a two-year full time assignment at a designated public high school," explained Dr. Barone. "They conduct approximately ten classes a week and lead after school and community programs."
Health coordinators in high schools across the country act as mentors in the schools. They also function as classroom educators, health boosters, and confidantes. According to Dr. Barone, "Most importantly, coordinators help enhance the mental resilience of teens who are barraged by food choices, electronic toys that discourage them from outdoor play, and modern-day stresses exasperated by family problems, cultural issues, and poverty."
HealthCorps also challenges faculty to practice the health messages they preach, and urges school food staff to increase healthy eating options as a matter of pride and public health.
In three Palm Beach County high schools, thanks to the efforts of HealthCorps coordinators, students have more healthy lunch options each day, such as turkey wrap with tomato basil, buffalo chicken salad, yogurt, and fresh fruits.
HealthCorps reaches community residents of all ages through Highway to Health Festivals that include free health screenings, nutritious food and beverage samples, fitness workouts -- everything from Zumba Latin dance to yoga and martial arts, live entertainment, games and giveaways. And of course, there is Dr. Oz's visible presence on television and print media.
What Can Teachers Do?
For those of us working in schools, it's good to know that HealthCorps works in very SECD-informed ways. They are developing a curriculum on nutrition, fitness, and mental resilience that is informed by the best of SECD pedagogy.
HealthCorps Coordinators' efforts are guided by the School Health Index (SHI) -- a tool developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and compiled by a School Wellness Task Force comprised of students, faculty, and community members.
I have only scratched the surface of what HealthCorps is doing in schools, workplaces, and communities to apply SECD and related concepts to the national crisis of overeating and excessive weight. There is much more information at the Web site. I think it's noteworthy that in Dr. Oz, HealthCorps has an appealing focal leader and central communicator with knowledge and credibility to help galvanize public attention and interest.
Those of us working in schools should take seriously the strong connection of SECD and eating and seek to connect these ideas in our schools at every opportunity. If you have been doing so, please share your comments here so we can learn from your experience!