By Jessica Militello
With nearly half the school year through, Active Plus have been working hard to educate students with their health and nutrition programs, like the classes they offer at the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem.
Since Active Plus was founded, they have deployed their best coaches and educators to provide health and fitness programs to students all over New York City to educate them on how to live better, healthier lives. At the Women's Leadership School in East Harlem, Active Plus members hold weekly fitness and nutrition classes for girls in the 6th through 12th grade. Coaches David Muchnick and James Dunnington teach the fitness classes with assistance from Felix Serrano, and Eileen Barett is in charge of nutrition. The organization’s mission would not be possible without the help of these amazing members and volunteers who offer their time and experience to help our kids grow up healthier and more informed on fitness and nutrition.
For Serrano, who first began doing volunteer work almost four years ago, the opportunity to have a positive influence on the youth is his biggest motivation.
“When [the students] first come in, they could be having a bad day,” said Serrano. “But to see them workout, and their expression change from sadness or boredom to actually having fun makes it worth it.”
The fitness classes consist of a warm-up, a main activity, such as boxing, basketball, or dance and are followed by a cool-down to end the session. The coaches like to offer a variety of activities for each class.
“We like to switch it up so they don’t get bored,” said Dunnington. “Some of the girls don’t do any physical activity [on their own] so we like to expose them to different workouts.”
According to “The State of Obesity 2018” report by The Trust for America’s Health Organization, “18.2 percent of Black and Latino high school students had obesity compared with 12.5 percent of their White peers.” With these statistics, it is important for organizations like Active Plus to break the cycle of obesity by teaching healthy habits early on.
“We’re trying to expose the students to certain activities and life sports that they might not have known about beforehand,” said Muchnick. “But it’s also to improve their overall physical health and fitness and [teach them] things that they can do on their own when they leave school.”
In addition to fitness, teaching proper nutrition is also considered a high priority among the organization and for good reason. According to a report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released in January 2019, “Food-related companies almost exclusively target advertising for nutritionally poor products to Hispanic and Black consumers, and Hispanic and Black children and teens view large numbers of these ads. The most highly targeted categories [are] fast-food, candy, sugary drinks, and snacks.”
Barett, who grew up in East Harlem has been teaching Active Plus’ nutrition classes since October 2017 and feels strongly about redirecting poor dietary habits that teens may pick up through the media.
“I think that looking at our society and the information that children get, especially from social media, and on TV, it’s important to give them the truth about what’s healthy and nutritious rather than the fad diets that are out there,” said Barett. “We only have 20 minutes during the class, but if we’re giving them basic information about how they can start forming healthy habits now that will impact them as they continue to grow, that’s really important to me especially within this population. I grew up in this neighborhood and I went to an all-girls school, so this is a place that’s really near and dear to my heart.”
In the nutrition classes, the girls have a chance to grow their own lettuce and herbs and learn recipes for healthy snacks and meals that are also quick and simple. Barett offers an interactive and fun learning method, including a game of jeopardy where the girls are asked questions like, “How many cups of water should you drink in a day,” and “What are two ways to take vegetables and make them unhealthy?” She also importantly notes to the girls that eating healthy is about moderation.
Many of the girls have been taking the information and using it in their everyday lives, making mindful changes in their eating choices and applying what they learn from their nutrition course. One student in particular named Elsa even won an Active Plus challenge by having the most social media posts showing off her healthy eating choices at home.
“Basically, whoever posted the most videos of healthy eating online won the challenge. I made things like brown rice, fruit smoothies, fruit salads, stuff like that,” said Elsa. “I didn’t really like brown rice that much but I looked up ways to make it taste better without adding unhealthy stuff to it. We learn about protein and vegetables and I like learning, not for a grade, but just to learn, so it was fun to do that.”
The programs that Active Plus bring to schools may be setting the tone for a change toward better choices in health and fitness habits, particularly as the organization continues to expand and increase its network of talented and caring coaches and professionals.
Barett has certainly noticed an impressive amount of interest and participation from the girls in her nutrition class, even after the class is over.
“I have girls come up to me and tell me “I want to try smoothies now,” said Barett. “Or they tell me they are looking for a healthy snack and ask, “what’s a healthy snack I can have,” so they’re thinking about it, and I think it’s impacting them, as much as you can impact a teenager these days.”