School wellness programs teach Gwinnett students lifelong lessons

LAWRENCEVILLE - School's not just about reading, writing and 'rithmetic anymore.

Schools are going beyond the three R's, teaching students how to live a healthy lifestyle. School officials said they hope what the students learn about nutrition and fitness will stay with them throughout their lives.

"Statistics pretty well show that, as a generation, we're heavier and more sedentary than ever before," said Allison Miller, the assistant superintendent of Buford City Schools. "We're a nation at risk. ... Anytime a problem is recognized on a national level, schools are asked to address it ... (because) we are a logical vehicle for delivering change."

To encourage students to partake in daily physical activity, schools are branching beyond traditional physical education activities.

Students at Berkmar Middle School said their physical education class is much more fun than other classes. That could be because the class lets students play video games at least once a week.

But they aren't just sitting down with a controller. To keep the students moving, the games require students to pedal a stationary bike or constantly move their feet to hit the appropriate arrows on a floor pad.

The games, which the school bought with a grant from Nickelodeon, are the favorites of many students.

"It's fun," said Dillion McIntosh, 13, an eighth-grade student at Berkmar. "You play a video game and exercise at the same time."

The video games are in Berkmar's fitness room, which is also equipped with treadmills, stair-stepping machines, stationary bicycles and a weight machine.

Dana Griffith, a physical education teacher and Gwinnett's Middle School Teacher of the Year, said the exercise machines are appropriate because many students live in apartment complexes, which often provide similar equipment for residents.

Griffith said she and the other teachers use the equipment in a way that is appropriate for the students' ages. The goal, she said, is to encourage the students to be active daily.

Berkmar's not the only Gwinnett County school to offer nontraditional physical education activities. Some elementary schools have rock climbing walls in their gymnasiums. The walls, which are about six feet tall, allow the children to climb up and then move sideways.

Jeff Rupp, an assistant professor of kinesiology and health in Georgia State University's Department of Education, said teachers are increasingly trying to promote a healthy lifestyle.

"Physical education teachers are trying to do the best job they can in a difficult situation," Rupp said. "When money is tight, the first thing that is cut is PE."

While offering fitness choices such as rock climbing, it's important for school systems to remember that, especially in elementary school, physical education should help develop students' motor skills, balance and agility, Rupp said.

Chuck Truett, Gwinnett County Public Schools' director of health and physical education, said the school system is required to teach students a certain number of hours of health and PE classes. The hours vary based on the grade level.

All of Gwinnett County's classes meet the state and system requirements at each grade level, he said.

The school system also teaches students how alcohol, tobacco and drugs affect their well-being, Truett said.

"We spend a lot of time talking about how their lifestyle and choices they make directly affects their wellness," Truett said.

The school system is careful, Truett said, to also teach the students their bodies are changing on a daily basis.

"What we want to get them to understand is that each individual is just that: an individual who will react similarly in situations but will react specifically to what they're doing to and for their bodies."

Barrow County Schools are also encouraging lifelong wellness practices, said Superintendent Ron Saunders.

The school system has written policies on physical education that include the encouragement of lifelong physical activity and integration of physical movement throughout the school day.

While getting out of the classroom may still be considered the best part of PE classes, those lifelong lessons seem to be sinking in.

Eighth-grader Safia Ekiti, 14, said she wants to continue exercising when she gets older.

"I don't want to die early," Safia said.