Class for Overweight Students at Ill. School Promotes Healthy Habits

By Ellen Flax — April 08, 1992 6 min read

“Sometimes I come into class feeling like crap,’' she says after a brisk session of step aerobics. “After a good workout, I feel better about myself.’'

Antioch, ILL.--Although they may never appear in a Jane Fonda Exercise video, the students in Debbie Rummel’s physical-education class here would be satisfied just to achieve the body of an average Jane or Joe.

The students, who are all overweight, are part of an innovative program at Antioch Community High School to help students lose their girth through exercise and a proper diet.

At least three days a week, the 21 girls and the single boy in Ms. Rummel’s Physical Management class do fat-burning exercises, such as walking, running, or step aerobics, in an atmosphere that does not stigmatize them because they are heavy or lack the grace of a natural athlete.

Two additional days a week, the students learn about nutrition, proper eating habits, and self-esteem.

The proof that the class works, says students, is in the pudding: Most kids who take the class continue to lose weight or at least sustain what they have lost.

Equally important, say students, is that the class teaches them to feel comfortable with themselves and their less-than-perfect bodies.

“People called me fat and stuff, and I couldn’t play because I was fat,’' says Leah Stringer, a junior who has lost 20 pounds over the past three years while taking the Physical Management class. “I started putting myself down because of it.’'

“This class has showed me that I can deal with it, and I don’t have to feel bad about myself,’' says Leah, who hopes to be 20 pounds thinner by the time she graduates.

Giving Students Extra Help

Although Physical Management has been offered as a physical-education elective at Antioch for seven years, it actually began more than a dozen years ago as a master’s thesis project for Eileen Solberg, who used to teach physical education in Great Falls, Mont. Overweight high-school students, Ms. Solberg says, struggled through her gym classes.

“There was just never enough time during regular physical-education classes to give them extra help,’' she says. “What I wanted to do was to help them and see if they would do better.’'

This extra help turned into a pilot program that eventually became Physical Management. Instead of focusing on team sports, the overweight students were channeled into aerobic activities. At the same time, they were given lectures about nutrition, self-esteem, and their own bodies.

Equally important, Ms. Solberg says, is that the class gave heavy students, who were traditionally teased by their classmates, an instant support group.

“They are overweight in history class, or math class, as well as physical-education class,’' she says. “Being with an entire group of overweight students makes them feel secure.’'

Over a five-year period, Ms. Solberg says, about one-third of her students would continue to lose weight after taking the yearlong class, one-third would sustain their weight loss, and one-third would gain all or some of their weight back.

Now a Billings-based consultant who has trained educators nationally, including Ms. Rummel, about the course, Ms. Solberg says the program can promote healthy habits that may last a lifetime. “The earlier you start, the more likely it is that you will be able to prevent students from becoming overweight,’' she says.

Ms. Solberg’s interest in Physical Management comes at the same time that national health experts have become more concerned about the growing number of children and adolescents who are overweight. Young people who are overweight, they find, are more likely to become heavy adults. And heavy adults, experts say, are more likely to suffer from a variety of physical problems, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, than their thinner peers.

‘Fast-Food Hell’

Federal data show that in 1980, the latest year for which complete information is available, 27.1 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were obese, compared with 17.6 percent in 1963. For adolescents ages 12 to 17, 21.9 percent were obese in 1980, up from 15.8 percent in 1963.

Although genes play a large role in determining who is at risk of becoming obese, the poor diet and sedentary lifestyle that many American youths have adopted have not helped matters, health experts say.

Only 37 percent of teenagers exercise vigorously three or more times a week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has found, and the percentage of high-school students who are enrolled in physical-education classes is declining, from 65 percent in 1984 to 48 percent in 1990.

At the same time, many teenagers have a diet that is high in fat and sugar. A national study released by the American School Health Association in 1989 found that students reported eating three snacks a day, and nearly 40 percent said they ate fried foods four or more times a week.

The average teenager’s dependence on fast food is clearly evident at Antioch. Just steps beyond the front door of the school lies what is known locally as “Fast-Food Hell,’' a strip that includes virtually every hamburger, fried-chicken, and pizza chain advertised on television. Inside the school, the food situation is not much better; students can buy entrees at the cafeteria that include side orders of french fries, or purchase their lunch in a student hangout that includes a wall of junk-food-laden vending machines.

In this environment, Ms. Rummel tries to persuade her Physical Management students to adopt healthier habits. While some students learn about the physical-education elective through friends, most are recruited by Ms. Rummel, who scans the results of annual skinfold measurements taken of all of the school’s students for potential enrollees. Students are eligible for the class if their body-fat ratio exceeds 30 percent if they are girls and 25 percent if they are boys.

‘Change My Ways’

The class, Ms. Rummel says, has four major components: affecting positive behavior changes, such as eating more slowly; physical conditioning through aerobic exercise; maintaining a low-fat, high-fiber, and high-carbohydrate diet developed by the American Diabetes Association; and developing a positive self-image.

“A lot of kids eat because they have a lot of problems,’' she says. “Food is just a symptom.’'

Although students last year lost, on average, 18 pounds and 5 percent of their body fat, Ms. Rummel says the program is no magic bullet. “I tell kids that this is like any other diet program,’' she says. “Unless you want it, it won’t happen.’'

Besides improving students’ physical skills, the class provides tips for dealing with the real world. Ms. Rummel talks with her students about the best things to eat in a fast-food restaurant, and has taken them to the mall to learn how to select clothes that flatter their figures.

Students say that Ms. Rummel’s interest in their health, as well as the class’s content, has helped them lose weight and feel better about themselves.

Beth Chans, a junior who took the class for a year and a half, says she has been able to keep off 24 of the 30 pounds she has shed.

“My mom is really overweight,’' she explains. “I don’t want to be that way. I had to change my ways.’'

“I really wanted to lose weight,’' she says. “I didn’t like myself. I didn’t look pretty, and I didn’t feel pretty.’'

Jayme Lenhart, a sophomore, says students in the Physical Management class are supportive of each other. In regular gym classes, she says, “people would be rude to you. They would start making moo sounds.’'

But in Ms. Rummel’s class, she says, “everyone in the class is at the same level. They understand.’'

Trish Jelinek, a senior, says Ms. Rummel asked her to join the class after she was hospitalized for an eating disorder.

Although students have occasionally commented about her weight and the fact that she is enrolled in a class for overweight students, Trish says that most of her peers have been supportive. “People who know I am in the class give me a lot of credit for doing something,’' she says.

“Sometimes I come into class feeling like crap,’' she says after a brisk session of step aerobics. “After a good workout, I feel better about myself.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Class for Overweight Students at Ill. School Promotes Healthy Habits