Spring 2008 Issue
Barry grad student Elaine Rancatore is putting a whole new spin on the old-style PE class
By Celeste Fraser Delgado
The security guard was friendly with Matthew Schaefer. Not many other people were. Weighing in at 375 pounds, the 11th-grader at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida, tried to hide from his classmates behind his long dark hair and oversized glasses.
"Ever since I was a child people laughed at me," Schaefer recalls. So he'd always kept his distance from his peers. But the security guard made a point of speaking to him. One day she passed him a flyer that she'd been handed by a geometry teacher, announcing Lifestyle Fitness Design, a special course promoting physical fitness and healthy eating. Schaefer took the flyer home to show his mother.
"This is the answer to our prayers," his mom said.
Each of the nearly 5,500 students at Cypress Bay – the nation's largest high school – is required to take a health/life management skills course for graduation, but with the class capped at 25, only a select few can enroll in Lifestyle Fitness Design. Now in its second year, the innovative course runs through one class period each day, and includes lunchtime too. The curriculum not only preaches good living, but actually provides students with the tools they need to make healthy choices by exposing them to a variety of physical activities and bringing them into the kitchen to prepare nutritious food.
Students interested in enrolling must agree to an interview and meet unusual criteria: applicants should be sedentary, with bad diets. "I try to find the students with the unhealthiest habits," explains Kim Love, Cypress Bay volleyball coach and LFD teacher. (This year, when the course expanded from one section to two, student-athletes were also admitted to include a range of fitness levels.)
A good sport
The concept for the course grew out of a chance meeting at a local gym between Cypress Bay athletic director Bill Caruso and Dr. Elaine Rancatore, then co-director of the Stroke Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Florida, and currently a student in the Professional Master of Public Health program at Barry University.
Seeing stroke victims on a regular basis, Rancatore was acutely aware of the long-term consequences of a poor diet and lack of exercise, which includes not only stroke, but heart disease and diabetes as well. While working out one evening, Rancatore and Caruso started chatting about the current epidemic of adolescent obesity and how it is likely to lead to even more grave health problems in the future. The pair hit on the idea of creating a course at Cypress Bay that would teach teenagers how to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Caruso introduced Rancatore to Coach Love and the two women began planning the curriculum.
Lifestyle Fitness Design takes a markedly different approach to physical activity than the typical high school phys ed course. Many of these classes tend to focus on competitive team sports such as volleyball, softball, or basketball. This type of model, Love says, leaves a lot of down time as students wait their turn to play, and often leads young people to equate athletic ability with physical fitness. "Kids think that they have to be good at sports to work out," she said.
To promote activity at all fitness levels as a part of students' daily lives, Cypress Bay partners with the YMCA, bringing the class to the Y's 42,500-square-foot facility in Weston two days a week. On one of those days, they take a spinning class, a group class on stationary bicycles lead by an instructor. Because each student controls the level of difficulty on his or her own bicycle, everyone can work at their own level without being compared to anyone else – an essential factor for making self-conscious teens feel comfortable, Love says.
The other fitness day students are exposed to a full range of activities that increase strength, flexibility, and the ability to manage stress, including weight training, yoga, Pilates, and aerobics. The 75 instructors on staff at the Y take turns volunteering to teach the teens. Each student also receives a complimentary membership to the Y for the semester, allowing them to return before or after school for additional workouts.
"You have teenagers who are 15, 16, 17 years old coming in here at five in the morning to take a spinning class," Rancatore marvels.
On a Tuesday morning last December, a group of 25 teens are being put through their paces in a strenuous workout called boot camp. They warm up, crossing their arms across their chests and shifting their weight from one foot to the other, increasing the intensity of their movement gradually. To get their heart rates up, they run laps around the gym. Every few minutes they slow down the pace and concentrate on building strength, leaning back on their heels and squatting down or laying on their backs and curling off the floor.
Watching from a table in the YMCA snack bar, Rancatore, Love, and the Y's wellness director Debbie Hickey comment on the progress the group has made this semester. They are impressed by how low the students can squat compared to a few months ago.
"The instructor couldn't believe how little lower body strength they had at the beginning," says Hickey.
"Kids today don't move the way we used to," Rancatore points out. "They don't do little things we used to do like mow the lawn or walk or ride our bicycles to school. They can't even hold up their own body weight."
Adding physical activity to the daily routine has had a dramatic impact on the health and physical appearance of several of the students, Love observes as she gestures toward Matthew Schaefer, suited up in black sweat pants and a red T-shirt and swinging his arms with the rest of the group. She reports that he has lost 30 pounds since August and lowered his blood pressure and cholesterol. Schaefer has grown so enthusiastic about working out that he comes to the Y outside school. A student who herself dropped 50 pounds while completing the course the year before gives him a ride, picking up the once friendless teen on her way to her own workouts.
"His confidence has really increased," Love beams. "It makes you want to get up and go to work in the morning."
Yet weight loss, or what Rancatore calls "aesthetics," is not the primary goal of LFD. The program also recruits students who are underweight, usually because of eating disorders, with one young woman who completed the course last year gaining 15 pounds. Then there is the vast category of "poor eaters": those students who maintain an average weight and appearance thanks to the miracle of teen metabolism, but who nonetheless are not meeting the nutritional standards that will give them the most energy now or protect them against disease later in life.
The rest of the week is spent in the classroom. There, Rancatore, as a medical doctor, presents the long-term health risks of bad habits. At first, the doctor notes, providing this information nearly backfired. "They came away thinking there was no way they could win this battle," says Rancatore.
But then the doctor and the coach showed them how easily those habits could change, by having them prepare healthy food for each other in the class kitchen. They also required the students to keep a daily log of their intake, using software that kept track of trends over time, so students could see graphically whether they were getting enough of each essential nutrient and where they should make changes.
"You can tell the students what they should eat and why they should exercise, but that doesn't change the mindset," Rancatore insists. "But if they actually do it, they feel the difference."
And when they feel it, they become evangelists, drawing in their friends and family. That's what happened to Katerina Fantini who last year had a friend who would always show up for their fourth period class, flush with excitement about what she had done in LFD in third period. Now just as enthusiastic about the class herself, the 17-year-old senior was so inspired by a guest speaker on raw foods and juicing – the practice of pureeing fruits and vegetables to make them easier to consume – that she bought two books on the subject and is trying it at home. She says her parents have no choice but to join in: "At my house, I'm always blabbing everything I learn to my parents: ‘You have to try this!' "
Aniana Pozo also brings the LFD message home. Another 17-year-old senior, she didn't have much interest in fitness. "I used to be very self-conscious about my body," she remembers. "I'd look in the mirror and hate what I saw, but I never took the steps to change it." She finally enrolled in the course because she enjoyed Coach Love's "hands-on" teaching style in another class. Then, when the LFD class was encouraged to participate in a local 5 kilometer run, she not only competed, but convinced her parents to run as well. "We all did it as a family," Pozo says. They had such a good time, they committed to another family 5K in February.
Back to the future
Could this be the future of physical education across the United States? Rancatore, Love, and Hickey say that's their dream, but for now they're resisting the temptation to grow too fast. Hickey is setting up workshops at the Y for physical education teachers at Cypress Bay and Love and Rancatore have presentations planned at a conference for physical education teachers in the Broward schools.
To make sure they move forward with solid research, Rancatore has been using the methods she's learning at Barry to properly assess the students' progress, measuring vital signs such as blood pressure and body mass index (the proportion of fat to muscle) as well as conducting surveys to measure attitudes, such as self-esteem.
"In the Master in Public Health, we want people to solve health problems in a systematic, preordained format," says Rancatore's advisor and Director of the Master's of Public Heath Program, Richard T. Patton. So far, he says, his star pupil has made all the right methodological moves: assessing the problem, designing a program specifically for this particular population, and measuring appropriate outcomes. The last step will be sharing her research. "I want Elaine to get up in front of people and present what she is doing," he says. "She just inspires."
For now, the anecdotal evidence at least is clear. "For one thing, I feel confident in myself," Matthew Schaefer said. "Last year I'd be hiding and I wouldn't talk to anyone. Now I can talk and be seen, and I feel a lot more energy I never felt before. It's been life changing."