Getting an 'A' for effort Health: Ellicott City high school sees fit to take students' physical well-being into its own hands.

November 05, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,STAFF WRITER

On this side of the room, 100 teen-agers are huffing and puffing to the beat of the music, the smiles gone from their shiny faces.

On the other side, a woman more than twice their age bounces and struts with ease as she urges the youngsters to keep up with her.

"If an old [person] like me can outlast them, that's saying something," says Charmaine Gordon, a veteran aerobics instructor conducting a class at Howard High School in Ellicott City.

Although Gordon is light years away from being over the hill, what it's saying is that America's teen-agers need to get it together. Despite our society's obsessions with weight control, abdominal machines and Oprah Winfrey's ever-changing body, our kids are losing it. Or rather gaining it. Weight that is.

The proportion of overweight adolescents in the United States increased to 21 percent from 15 percent from 1988 through 1991, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Another recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that only 37 percent of high school students exercise vigorously for 20 minutes three or more times a week, while 35 percent watch TV three or more hours every school day.

Howard High School Principal Mary Day knows America's teen-agers are in danger of taking root on their couches (just like many of their parents have already done). To encourage her 1,200 students to get up and move, she organized an entire week called "Fit Happens." In addition to aerobics classes, there were smoking-cessation classes, male and female strength contests, lunch walks around the track, jump rope classes and nutritional information displayed in the cafeteria.

Of course, having a "Fit Happens" week is something of a natural when your school's education partner is the Synergy Women's Fitness Club, headed by the indefatigable Gordon. But it may be the wave of the future as teens grow ever more sedentary, eat more high-fat foods and take up smoking in increasing numbers.

"The key is can we get the non-athletes?" says Dan Ross, a physical education teacher and coach at Howard High. "We've been doing weight training for athletes for 15 years now. But for the last eight to 10 years, we have tried to place more of an emphasis on non-athletes and girls."

So does any of this healthy lifestyle stuff actually penetrate the teen-age psyche? Well, yes for some and -- what, are you kidding? -- for others.

"I don't think about it," says 14-year-old Steve Noonan, while munching on chicken and french fries. Steve and a group of his friends are indulging in sandwiches, chips and sodas during lunch period in the cafeteria, where information on nutritional foods is posted. It goes over like a big ho-hum. Eating healthy is way down on the list of priorities for Steve and his buddies.

"I eat what I can find," he says.

"We really only hear about health and nutrition during PE," says Joe Gilbert, 15.

Evan Workman, 14, is the sole vegetarian in the group. Mostly vegetarian, that is. "Well, I'll eat turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Easter," he says. "But usually, I don't eat meat."

He isn't eating much of anything at lunch other than plucking a few french fries from his friend's plate.

They weren't required to take part in "Fit Happens." But some students got a little push from their teachers.

Ross, for instance, "encouraged" his physical education class to take part in one of the aerobics classes led by Gordon. By the looks of it, hopping around to the beat was an entirely new experience for most of the boys in the group.

"I hear they are calling me the drill sergeant," Gordon says. "I love telling people what to do!"

A compact firebrand who doesn't look like she has an ounce of excess body fat, Gordon laughswhile revving the class up with booming hip-hop music.

"I'm trying to show them that there's a lot of ways to stay fit," says Gordon, who used the week to offer a coeducational exercise class. "So what if you don't like soccer or running? Have you tried boxing aerobics?"

Gordon starts the class with a warm-up, then proceeds with "a little show of boxing, then some funk."

Ten minutes into the routine, there is a little less enthusiasm from roughly half of the crowd. Every few seconds, Gordon calls out "Hello!" to the crowd. As in, "Hello, are you with me?"

"Yes," they answer back in a not-so-enthusiastic tone.

"Are you lying?" she asks.

"Yes!" they shout back.

After a half-hour, one group of about 10 boys -- no names necessary, you know who you are -- simply gives up altogether. They stand in a tight little knot, bewildered expressions on their faces, looking at the bouncing people around them.

"I think this was dumb," says Kenny Laguerre, 17, one of the aerobically challenged.

"I was easy on them," Gordon says after the class is over. "It's sad how out of shape some of the kids are."

Gordon did not leave all of the teens in the dust, which means maybe, just maybe, there is hope for America yet.

"It was hard, but this class was fun," says 16-year-old sophomore Tisha Frailing as she took her spot on the floor for ab work.

"She was awesome," says Daisy Tillman after the class. "It was fun. I definitely want to take it again."

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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