Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Improving the Health of Underprivledged Youth


fusion's mission is to help people help themselves be healthy and happy. That mission drives all of our programs and events, including our volunteer and philanthropy. As you attract that which you seek, a perfect opportunity to get fusion's staff involved in the health and fitness program of a North Philadelphia all girls high school came to me from a friend, Kimberly Garrison. Kimberly just happened to have been contacted by Steve Stoxy, a caring and resourceful phys ed /health teacher, looking for good outside influences to get his girls on the right track before their poor habits are too ingrained. So we decided to create a monthly visit, either at the school or at fusion, to address various aspects of living a healthy lifestyle.

Visit 1: Fitness Assessment

In speaking with their teacher I discovered the girls had not had any kind of fitness testing in quite some time. Apparently the President's physical fitness test doesn't always get administered in every school, nor does it extend into high school, which it should. If valuing fitness and creating healthier habits is in fact a goal of our school system (which I am thinking it is not) then the standards that have been set need to be continually reinforced from Grade 1-12, so they have a chance at being accepted. Knowing that many of the girls would be overweight and out of shape, I thought seeing a simple but detailed BodyAge report describing where they stack up in several different areas of fitness might just be the shock they need to make a change. This report will summarize their fitness in an age for their body, so with a group of 17 and 18 year old, it will be interesting to see where they come out.

The girls came into fusion well behaved and mildly curious, most of them had never seen an adult facility quite like fusion before. As we took the girls through our body composition measures, several didn't even know their height or weight and 50% came up with a BMI (Body Mass Index) of over 25, which is the cutoff for "overweight". Only the heaviest girls, up in the obese category seemed to be concerned or embarrassed at all. How could this be that so many fantastic young girls were already in the danger zone? Luckily being so young their blood pressure numbers were very good, but those numbers have to raise red flags for diabetes, heart problems and quality of life issues in the future.

So we started in with the questions: does anyone like to exercise? (a few hands went up), does anyone exercise regularly? (maybe three hands remained out of 15), have you been in a gym before? (most only the school gym). As it turns out, being an intercity school they hardly have athletic teams as the space for fields, pools, courts is extremely limited as is the financing to fund sports programs.

When we went through the cardio test on the treadmills, their lack of exercise and athletics was clear. Only 2-3 of the skinnier girls were actually running at all, the rest were walking and slow jogging, but all were in high spirits, ready and willing to try anything. We moved onto the strength and flexibility tests and there were some much better scores interspersed in the group. The girls genuinely enjoyed the friendly strength competitions of push-ups, sit-ups and wall-sits, we even had one girl beat the fusion record. The way they reacted I just knew that their current lack of fitness was not something innate but rather a product of an unhealthy environment and lack of knowledge.

Now we hit them with some tougher nutrition questions. "What did you have for breakfast?" It was nearly unanimous, nobody was eating breakfast at all, maybe a bag of chips and soda at school if anything. In fact, soda and chips seemed to be a staple of their diet as it is the most readily available food in their daily life. Now lunch was upsetting as this is the one meal schools can control and provide proper nourishment. As it turns out, health is not on the menu in high school, burgers, fried chicken and french fries is, except for Thursdays when they have a salad option. Amazing.

All too often we assume certain things are taking place in all schools when in fact they are not. Shouldn't schools be the one community haven for: safety, health and education, regardless of where they are located or how wealthy the community. Sure there will be discrepancies between wealthy and poor neighborhoods, but our lack of property tax reform and concern for the poorer school districts continues to generate the same results for these helpless kids who clearly know no better. They should be as healthy and smart as any, so we must find ways to intervene, and if we cannot change the system maybe we can at least expose these kids to something healthier, something better and raise their standards in hopes that they will find ways to improve their lifestyle. With this perspective we will continue to work with our group of high school girls every month, creating a mini curriculum/program, with plans to spearhead an Adopt-a-School program that other city gyms can mimic to reach the millions of other students in need of supplemental fitness education.

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