WHAT PRESIDENTS Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy wanted a half century ago was in the cacophony of the Brackett Elementary School gymnasium. It was 7:40 a.m., not yet an hour after sunrise and still 35 minutes before the start of school. About 50 second- and third-graders sprung into action as Kidz Bop cover songs blasted out of a boom box.
Some youths did sit-ups. Some rapidly tiptoed along an agility ladder. Others crab-walked and bear-walked. Others did squat jumps. Lead physical education teacher Guy Schiavone stopped the music. The children ran to another station. Music on. The boys and girls did step-ups, jumped rope, and ran exuberant laps around all the other stations. Their joyous shouting and stomping competed with the music.
Parent volunteer Robin Varghese said, “You’d never think you’d hear a kid say ‘I love PE.’ But here, you hear it all the time.’’
That would have been music to Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s ears. In the 1950s and early ’60s, both presidents equated physical fitness with the strength of the nation. Kennedy said, “Our struggles against aggressors throughout our history have been won on the playgrounds and corner lots and fields of America.’’
Their warnings were dramatically ignored as the United States became the most obese country in the developed world, with our life span falling behind that of many nations.
Fortunately, new victories are being won on the playgrounds, gymnasiums, recreation centers, and cafeterias of Massachusetts, one of the least obese states in the nation, with Arlington being a lead example in terms of results. In a 2010 report, the state Department of Public Health found that the Arlington school district had an overweight and obesity rate of only 9.6 percent, the least of any district studied.
What is particularly encouraging is that Arlington’s success is not a simple story of wealth. Arlington’s overweight and obesity rates are half those of many much wealthier districts and a third of many districts of similar median annual income. The town’s general funding of physical education is not out of the ordinary, and, as in many districts, elementary physical education classes were reduced for a year during the depth of the recent recession.
But Cindy Bouvier, the district’s wellness and counseling director, said the district prides itself on targeted funding, spending many thousands of dollars on after-school activity programs, full supervision of the high school fitness room, and outdoor education. “It’s not like everything is perfect,’’ Bouvier said. “We’re still not like private schools that have physical education five days a week.’’
What Arlington does have is strong parent advocacy for the existing programs and a healthy “built environment,’’ built before the term became the buzzword of sustainable development.
It has relatively few fast-food restaurants - no McDonald’s or Burger King. It hosts a major chunk of one of the state’s signature bicycling trails, the Minuteman, which doubles as a commuter walkway. It was one of the first towns in the nation to launch the Safe Routes to School movement of walking to school and rebuilding sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic-calming strategies to encourage it. Other communities in Massachusetts should follow Arlington’s lead and make children’s fitness a priority.
Nutrition is so important that the Brackett school has a “good food’’ coordinator, Nancy Chew, who organizes field trips to farms, orchards, and restaurants. At the Ottoson Middle School, teachers Maureen Murphy and Melissa Ebersman have students debate the ethics of junk-food marketing and the nutritional content of sandwiches from so-called healthy restaurants. Students also cook meals from scratch from several different cuisines.
“A couple girls really got into making broccoli pizza,’’ Ebersman said. “One of them came back from the holidays saying she got a pizza stone. One of the other girls said, ‘That’s what you wanted for your present, a pizza stone?’ ’’
As these young adolescents critically analyzed food recently, physical education teacher Matt Cooney rotated students around the gymnasium in a class involving weights, dancing, stationary bike-riding, and pickup basketball. Cooney, 26, was in this very same weight room in the late 1990s as an Ottoson student, going from a lethargic addict of processed frozen hot pockets to a short minor-league baseball career.
“When a kid asks me, ‘Why do I need weight training?’ I tell them this is training for life,’’ Cooney said. “That’s what’s different today than old phys-ed. We realize we’re dealing with all kinds of issues, bullying or loneliness from Mommy or Daddy not there anymore. In fact, the biggest thing down here is addressing the non-athletes to make sure they use this time to feel good about themselves.’’
After school, lead physical education teacher Kevin Cummings, who is also the wrestling coach at Arlington High School, has a physical activity program that runs the gamut from Zumba dance and badminton to softball and dodgeball. “We try to create a free-for-all where you drop in for 60 to 90 minutes and you find something so much fun you don’t even know you are exercising,’’ Cummings said. “This is not ‘skills-and-drills.’ It’s more about grab a buddy and come down to the gym. When you see 50, 60 kids lining up for dodgeball in this day and age, that’s what you want to see.’’
Arlington is also reaching out to non-athletes to get them to stay in shape. At Arlington High, 55 percent of the students play a sport, but under the direction of physical education teacher Kim Visco, the other 45 percent have plenty of fitness options. Many students use the weights, treadmills, and other aerobic machines alongside the team athletes.
“It’s just so alive around here,’’ said Jessi Kirchner, a 16-year-old sophomore who is a member of the Arlington-Belmont club crew team. “There’s always a random basketball game going on, kids playing soccer, you hear all of the guys grunting and trying to improve on the weights. Whenever I beat my time on a machine, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s so important to have those kinds of feelings because so often as a teenager, the outside world doesn’t want to hear your voice yet. This a place where you can be a strong girl, where you can say to yourself, ‘I know how strong I am.’ ’’
The focus on fitness pays off. Jonathan Hislop, a 17-year-old senior who plays soccer and does track, said his friends at his lunch table generally eat salads and wraps. “I used to love soda, but one day I just noticed that I felt sluggish and I couldn’t lift weights as high,’’ he said. “Instead of soda, chips, and fried stuff, I just started to do water, cheese, and fruit. I played a lot better and my acne started to go away.’’
Physical education at Arlington High goes to the extreme in Bob Tremblay’s for-credit backpacking, canoeing, climbing, and wilderness survival classes. Tremblay is a 1981 thru-hiker of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail and his most ambitious students spend 72 hours in solo, handmade winter camps in a state forest. One girl liked backpacking so much, she eventually went trekking in Nepal.
Backpacking student Jasmine Jackson, a 16-year-old junior, liked the backpacking class so much, she asked to repeat it. “Hiking up the paths, looking at waterfalls, and everybody just sitting, hardly talking looking at them, I realized I could survive without a cellphone,’’ she said.
Jackson surely represents what John F. Kennedy meant when he declared that “the vigor of our citizens is one of America’s most precious resources.’’ That makes Arlington an oasis in the nation’s obesity crisis, a most precious resource.