Natalie Rogers knows health and exercise. She is a retired professional ballerina, a former pre-med student at UGA and currently a fitness instructor who values healthy living.
A few years ago, Rogers was distressed by the lack of physical activity and the poor nutritional quality of cafeteria food that her now 10-year-old daughter experienced at Sope Creek Elementary School in Cobb County.
But Rogers said everything has changed for the better in the last few years.
“We got a new principal, Martha Whalen, and she just totally gets it,” said Rogers, who became Sope Creek’s PTA Health and Nutrition Committee co-chair in 2007. “She totally gets the connection between the brain and the body.”
Sope Creek now combines an exercise program and good nutrition with solid academic performance that has been recognized on a state level.
Research has shown a link between physical fitness and academic achievement. A University of Illinois at Urbana study, published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, suggests that physical activity may increase students’ cognitive control –- or ability to pay attention –- and also result in better performance on achievement tests.
Georgia has special concerns about the physical condition of its young people. The state ranks second in the country in its childhood obesity rate. The state government, community groups and nonprofits have launched a range of programs to reduce obesity and increase fitness in children, including in schools.
One of them, the SHAPE initiative, measures the strength, flexibility and endurance of students, and aims to promote childhood fitness through goal-setting, tracking and recognition.
The Cobb County School District’s philosophy emphasizes health and physical education as a lifelong endeavor, said Mark Anderson, the district’s health and physical education supervisor.
“Movement aids students to be more focused, organized and ready to learn,” Anderson said.
The Georgia Department of Public Health recently sent a team of researchers to learn how Sope Creek’s Sunrise system works.
Connie Smith, the agency’s communications specialist, said Sope Creek is an example of healthy activities enhancing students’ success. She cited its Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores.
Rogers said fourth- and fifth-grade students now have 225 minutes of exercise every week.
“It is a built-in part of our school day . . . it is neuroscience put into action,” Rogers said. “Your brain is on high-speed Internet, as opposed to dial-up, after exercise.”
Better learning and more play
Whalen developed her idea after reading a book by Dr. John J. Ratey of Harvard Medical School, who contends that a segment of cardio before academic classes enhances learning and attention.
At the request of Whalen, Sope Creek physical education teacher Shawn Maloney teamed with Rogers to create cardio routines to be done in the morning before academic work.
“They were created to drive their heartbeats up and hit every single muscle group,” Rogers said.
The academic day at Sope Creek now starts at 8:15 a.m., after the students have been to the gym for their 20- to 30-minute cardio routine.
“This is in addition to PE,” Rogers said. “We didn’t do it as a mandatory thing. Coach [Maloney] just said, ‘Come try it, see what you think.’ ”
Eventually, teachers starting talking about the positive changes they were seeing in students.
“In case of bad weather, they have their workouts in the classroom with DVDs,” Rogers said, “So they can do their Zumba, for example, inside.” Zumba is a dance-inspired fitness program originally created in the nation of Colombia.
“Students are reaching all kinds of milestones and they are far healthier,” Rogers said. “We have done a study over the last four years and test scores have jumped, specifically in math and science.”
Since the changes were made, Sope Creek teachers occasionally find themselves with extra time at the end of a day, because students get their work done so much more efficiently. That extra time goes into an afternoon recess.
“The workouts were added without increasing the hours the children are at school and are conducted with no costly equipment or complicated instruction,” said Smith, the Public Health spokeswoman.
Meals for the mind
In addition to physical activity, nutrition plays a role in children’s brain function and overall focus.
Kelly Toon, the Cobb County School District wellness supervisor, said, “There is substantial evidence that consuming breakfast, particularly school breakfast, as part of a healthy lifestyle, is positively associated with children’s health and academic performance.”
There used to be no limit to the sodium served in school lunches. Rogers said there are better rules in place now, thanks to greater awareness and the efforts of the National School Lunch Program.
“Up until this past year, kids could have three servings of French fries,” she said, “But now a child cannot choose a double order of starch.”
The Choose My Plate program began in June 2011. Its primary message is that a person’s plate should be half-full of fruits and vegetables, half the grains should be whole grains, and the person should consume low-fat dairy products, rather than whole dairy products, with meals.
And a new farm-to-school movement, the Georgia Grown program, has been added to Cobb schools.
“Each month, we feature at least one locally grown food in each cafeteria,” Toon said, “In 2011, we won a Best Practice Award from USDA for the Southeast region for our efforts in working with local producers.”
Rogers said school gardens are a success at Sope Creek and other Cobb schools. Sope Creek established the first gardens in the district and now has 18 garden beds.
“The kids grew their own food. We have turnips, collards, radishes, kale, spinach, broccoli and all the winter veggies,” Rogers said. “In the spring we have all the [varieties of produce] you can possibly imagine: tomatoes, squash, beans, okra, strawberries, watermelon and cantaloupe.”
Rogers said Sope Creek’s system can be adapted to any school because it is not expensive.
The Department of Public Health sees the same advantage. “This successful model can be duplicated in schools across the state at little or no cost,” Smith said.
Caroline Young is a journalist and yoga teacher who recently moved back to Atlanta after studying journalism and Spanish at Flagler College.