July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Call for Action, Literally

I plugged in the stereo player, pressed the play button and faced 32 second graders in their classroom in the South Bronx. “Hey, everyone,” the voice began enthusiastically. “Who is ready to get Moving Smart?! Today we are going to exercise to learn so we can feel good and do well in school. Is everyone standing up? Good!” and our 12-minute session of Moving Smart began.

We started off with some gentle marching, followed by some static stretches for the first two minutes. Then the cardiovascular portion got underway and the classroom got a little louder as the kids jumped in place and pretended to throw their water bottles in the recycling can while counting by eights. I glanced at the classroom teacher and her face looked a little worried. I could tell that she was afraid that the kids would get too rowdy and she would have to struggle to settle them down. For a fleeting second I worried too, but I also knew that this usually happened and the students always settled down afterwards. Sure enough, after eight minutes of jogging in place, squats and jumps, all while practicing academic skills, the slow music took over. The kids stretched again and sat down at their desks. The final minute of the segment consisted of the kids laying their heads on their desks, closing their eyes and slowly taking deep breaths in and out, in and out. Finally, the voice on the CD instructed the children to open their eyes, sit up in their seats and listen to their teacher. A calm silence followed as the kids, refreshed and energized, were able to focus once again.

In December 2010, I was hired by Children’s Hospital at Montefiore as the exercise consultant for a Childhood Obesity Prevention and Intervention Study involving 16,000 children in grades K-4 in the Bronx. Many urban schools struggle with overcrowded classrooms, not enough gym periods for all the classes and overcrowded recess periods. Responding to research showing that regular physical activity has positive consequences on the students’ physical and emotional health, CHAMJAM (Children’s Hospital At Montefiore, Joining Academics and Movement) was created as a way to assess whether a classroom-based physical education program with academic components would improve the children’s physical fitness and academics.

I worked along with a small team that visited the 15 elementary schools and asked the randomly selected classroom teachers to play the 10-12 minute activity CD when the children arrived in the morning, before or after lunch, and once more at the end of the day. This way, we would assess whether the children would benefit from at least 30 minutes of activity per day. Since this was a research study, there were some classes who received the intervention and some that did not. We tested all their fitness levels over the course of the study.

The results have not been published yet, but my unscientific observations of the hundreds of students involved in this program showed a real short-term benefit directly resulting from the short burst of physical activity. The kids seemed to enjoy the active break from their formal academics and they picked up academic skills while moving in place. Finally, the deep breathing and meditation at the end of the session seemed to have an especially calming effect.

Some Issues

The CHAMJAM Moving Smart program was a fascinating intervention, but we also came across some challenges. For instance, school assemblies and holiday programs took priority, and because of the required interruptions, the teachers did not have time to play the CD three times a day. Often, students had substitute teachers and, again, they would miss out on the movement sessions. Third grade was an especially difficult year to log results since it was also a key testing year. Many teachers felt like they needed all the time to prepare the students for the standardized tests.

I truly believe that this initiative was a great start to increasing physical activity in the school system, but I feel we still need a more far-reaching approach to increase physical activity for our children and our communities. According to the 2018 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, approximately 24% of children 6 to 17 years of age participate in 60 minutes of physical activity every day, and this number decreases as children get older. In addition, gender differences exist: girls are participating in less activity as they get older. Furthermore, children with disabilities are not receiving the recommended amounts of physical activity.

Because our children spend so much of their time in a school environment, physical activity needs to be viewed as a conduit to learning, not as a break in learning. We can’t stress enough that the physical, emotional and academic advantages of movement work to enhance the child’s school experience. Regular physical activity can improve children’s cognitive performance by positively affecting memory and concentration. It is also associated with lower levels of stress and anxiety. Finally, studies have shown that physical activity improves classroom behavior, as I noted in my observations.

A Newer Approach

Not long after the CHAMJAM/Moving Smart NIH grant concluded, the ASCD and the Centers for Disease Control came out with a joint collaboration called the WSCC Model or Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child. Instead of relying on the classroom teachers to implement a classroom-based physical activity program, or depend on the physical education department, the WSCC approach is a comprehensive approach to health and education.

Using the components of the WSCC model, here are some ways that we could increase physical activity for the Whole School, as a Whole Community to benefit the Whole Child.

• Physical education teachers can work with administrators to offer the recommended minutes of physical education class (150 minutes for elementary school and 225 minutes for middle/high spread over at least three days per week).

• Keep students moderately to vigorously active for at least 50% of the time during more classes.

• Involve many different modalities, like dance, aerobics, strength and conditioning, since many children do not enjoy sports.

• Integrate physical activity into classrooms: www.gonoodle.com, brain breaks/brain boosts, morning warm-ups, scheduled school-wide physical activity breaks.

• Mindfulness Mondays: Implement one-minute mindfulness messages that are read on the PA system to start the week on a positive note.

• Communicate messages about “fueling” the body with healthy foods.

• Increase fill-up stations where the children can fill their water bottles with fresh water.

• Support students with special healthcare needs (asthma, diabetes, physical disabilities) to be physically active.

• Educate students and staff about the positive impact physical activity has on overall health, including the brain.

• Support physical activity as a recommended strategy to improve mood and reduce stress.

• Encourage “walk and talk” breaks (student pairs discuss what they’ve learned after a lesson).

• Address how to overcome barriers to physical activity, such as resisting peer pressure that discourages being active.

• Create a walking path around the school. Mark the distance so that the kids can log their miles. Introduce a program called Walk the Length of New Jersey and log the classes that walk 70 miles. Provide incentives like certificates or medals.

• Make sure the physical activity facilities are accessible to those with disabilities.

• Provide visual cues such as posters and a welcoming bulletin board that encourage different types of physical activity.

• Paint the playground with recess stencils—hopscotch board or other designs from this site: https://peacefulplaygrounds.com/recess-stencils/.

• Conduct physical activity challenges and other fitness programs for staff and students.

• Reduce teacher stress by incorporating workplace mindfulness training, meditation strategies or other types of exercise classes.

• Model healthy physical activity. Play basketball with the students. Run a 5K for a cause.

• Participate in physical activities during classroom and school events such as Take Your Parents to PE Night—a fun, interactive event where parents and children get to practice some of the fun activities that are learned in physical education class.

• Encourage students to be physically active at home, after school and on weekends.

• Lead no-cost physical activity opportunities before, during and after school.

• Schools should prohibit withholding physical activity as a form of punishment and/or behavior management.

• Schools should have wellness policies that outline the school’s efforts to create an environment that encourages healthy eating, physical activity and wellness.

• Schools should also have wellness teams made up of community members, parent body, PTA and school staff to help create and implement the wellness initiatives.

Call for Action

One final thought: I feel that it is wonderful that many of our elementary and high schools offer afterschool clubs that involve physical activity. Unfortunately, the cost of these clubs is often an exclusionary factor for many families. Health equality is imperative, but are we being health equitable if many students cannot afford these programs? Let’s work together to find donors who can help subsidize the cost of these types of programs so that all of our students have the opportunity to participate in afterschool physical-activity clubs.


Physical activity and physical education should not be relegated to a gym class a few times per week. We need to work as a community for the sake of our children to ensure that physical activity is incorporated throughout each and every day. Physical activity is just as important as, and doesn’t take away anything from, the standard academic curriculum. Plus the benefits of physical activity not only enhance our children physically, emotionally and intellectually, but will hopefully lead them to become healthier and more active adults.

Chaya Lebovic has her master’s in public health and is a certified health education specialist. Her undergraduate degree is in exercise science/exercise physiology. She is currently working for the Kessler Foundation, helping to implement an international cognitive rehabilitation and physical exercise study for those with progressive multiple sclerosis. Please email [email protected] with any feedback.

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