At least three days a week, the 21 girls and the single boy in 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 course works is in the pudding (or loss of it): Most kids who take the class continue to lose weight or sustain what they have lost. Equally important, the course teaches them to feel comfortable with themselves and their less-than-perfect bodies.
“People called me fat and stuff, and I started putting myself down because of it,’' says Leah Stringer, a junior who has lost 20 pounds over the past three years while taking the Physical Management class. “This class has showed me that I can deal with it, and I don’t have to feel bad about myself.’'
Although Physical Man- agement has been offered as a PE elective at Antioch for seven years, the course 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. Solberg recalls watching overweight students struggle through her 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, selfesteem, and their own bodies. Equally important, the class gave heavy students, who were often teased by their classmates, an instant support group. “Being with an entire group of overweight students makes them feel secure,’' she says.
Over a five-year period, Solberg found that about onethird of her students would continue to lose weight after taking the yearlong class, one-third would sustain their initial loss, and one-third would gain all or some of their weight back.
Now a Billings-based consultant who has trained educators nationally, including Rummel, Solberg says the program can promote healthy habits that may last a lifetime. “The earlier you start,’' she says, “the more likely it is that you will be able to prevent students from becoming overweight.’'
Physical Management has emerged at a time when national health experts are warning that a growing number of children and adolescents are overweight. Young people who are overweight are more likely to become heavy adults. And heavy adults are more likely to suffer from a variety of physical problems--including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes--than their thinner peers.
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. Only 37 percent of teenagers exercise vigorously three or more times a week according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 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’ diets are 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 High. 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.
Rummel tries to persuade her Physical Management students to pay attention to what they eat and adopt healthier habits.
While some students learn about the physical education elective through friends, most are recruited by Rummel, who scans the results of annual skin fold 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.
The class has four major components: encouraging positive behavior, 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.
Although students last year lost, on average, 18 pounds and 5 percent of their body fat, the program is no magic bullet.
“I tell kids that this is like any other diet program,’' Rummel says. “Unless you want it, it won’t happen.’'
Besides improving students’ physical skills, the class provides tips for dealing with the real world. For example, 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 Rummel’s interest in their health, as well as the course’s content, has not only helped them lose weight but also feel better about themselves. In regular gym classes, says sophomore Jayme Lenhart, “people would be rude to you. They would start making moo sounds.’' But in Rummel’s class, she says, “everyone is at the same level. They understand.’'
Rummel asked senior Trish Jelinek 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 after a brisk session of step aerobics.
“Sometimes I come into class feeling like crap,’' she says. “After a good workout, I feel better about myself.’' --Ellen Flax
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Shaping Up