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Valley Perspective

Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds

February 04, 2001

We could all learn a lesson from Dan Horn, principal of St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City, who has made physical fitness as much a part of his school's routine as diagraming sentences or working math problems.

Like many of us, Horn read about the alarmingly high rates of childhood obesity, which have doubled over the past two decades. Federal and state studies estimate that 10% to 15% of American children are seriously overweight, with another 25% at risk for obesity and all its attendant health problems.

Unlike many of us, Horn did something about this disturbing news. He instituted a physical fitness program, a requirement that is often seen as expendable with today's emphasis on core skills. He did it not at the expense of academic classes but by adding a seventh period and extending the school day three times a week.

The increase in obesity among children--and adults--can be traced, at least in part, to lifestyle changes. Not only do rushed parents rely more on convenient but high-fat fast food, their kids have traded pickup basketball and bicycling for television and video games. In some neighborhoods, fear of crime keeps kids indoors. Suburbs designed for automobiles, not pedestrians, discourage walking.

If contemporary culture conspires against exercise, Horn does everything possible to make it convenient. He's gone so far as to replace the typical Catholic school uniform of skirts and slacks with navy blue sweatsuits three times a week so that students can go straight to their fitness classes. Even faculty members wear sweatsuits and sneakers; St. Genevieve's 25 teachers lead yoga, basketball, weight-training, soccer and salsa classes, joining their students in dancing off the pounds.

In addition to lost pounds, students and their parents report gains in energy and in self-esteem, which may well translate to a boost in academic performance. In any case, Horn's experiment delivers a lesson--and, with luck, develops a habit--that will serve his students throughout their lives.

Now, where can the rest of us sign up?

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