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This P.E. class is brought to you by…

Exhibit A in Dr. Craig Keyes’ argument that physical fitness impacts children’s academic performance as much as their health is Aurora West College Preparatory Academy.

Keyes, a physician and former CEO of United HealthCare, is also president of the board of directors of SportXcel Youth Fitness Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing low-cost, high-return wellness education and fitness training in schools.

He highlights the correlation between the fitness levels of 205 Aurora West middle schoolers tested last year, and their grade point averages:

Those who attained “high healthy” scores in fitness assessments had an average GPA of 2.62, while those who scored in the “low healthy” zone had an average GPA of 1.99.

So much for the dumb jock vs. brainy weakling stereotype.

Unhealthy body “a ball and chain”

“An unhealthy body carries around a ball and chain. It’s like they’ve got a cloud over them,” Keyes said. “The kids who couldn’t meet minimum fitness standards were carrying around a weight that was worth .63 grade points compared to those kids who could. It’s our job to lift that cloud, to remove that barrier.”

When SportXCel coaches began working with Aurora West students last year, only a third could meet minimum fitness standards, which is typical for today’s youngsters. Eight weeks later, 80 percent had achieved at least minimum healthy fitness standards, Keyes said.

Dr. Craig Keyes, president of SportXcel Youth Fitness Foundation.
Dr. Craig Keyes, president of SportXcel Youth Fitness Foundation.

Now, thanks to an $8,000 grant from IMA of Colorado, a retail insurance broker, and a $2,000 grant from Pepsi Center owner Kroenke Sports, SportXcel has moved into a Denver school, Bryant-Webster ECE-8, with similar hopes of turning flabby little bodies into fitter little bodies and raising academic standards in the process.

And while the school year is too young to assess the academic impact, fitness levels for Bryant-Webster’s fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders have already started to climb.

When school began, only 31 percent could meet minimum fitness standards. Eight weeks into the school year, 75 percent have crossed that threshold, said Jamie Shalls, the school’s physical education teacher.

“What’s made this so successful is that SportXcel doesn’t attempt to come in and replace our physical education program with their own,” said Shalls. “Rather, it comes as a supplement. It seamlessly fits right in with our curriculum. And when SportXcel moves on, we can build on what they’ve taught us.”

Campaign launched to expand PE

SportXcel – the company – offers sports performance enhancement and fitness training to a wide range of individuals, from weekend warriors to elite professional athletes.

SportXcel – the foundation – is more concerned about getting P.E. back into schools, training teachers to use the most effective research-based techniques and documenting the impact on kids’ fitness, academic performance, attendance, behavior and lifestyle choices.

On Tuesday, SportXcel launched a campaign to get more businesses interested in underwriting the cost of bringing the program into local schools.

Gathering in the gym at Bryant-Webster, students performed some of the “dynamic warm-up” exercises they’ve learned this fall. Then Shalls invited the adult guests – members of the business community, DPS officials and media – to try those same warm-ups.

“These are just the warm-ups, not the workout?” moaned one middle-aged participant as he lunged across the gym floor. In five minutes, the adults were breathless – though in addition to youth, the students had the advantage of not working out in business attire.

“A lot of the components of the SportXcel program are touched on in our existing curriculum,” Shalls said. “The beauty is they bring a professional aspect to it. I tell the kids the program they’re doing with SportXcel is what Shaq (Boston Celtics star Shaquille O’Neal) does. It adds a new, exciting flavor to it.”

Daily gym classes at Bryant-Webster

At Bryant-Webster, middle-schoolers get one hour of physical education every day while elementary students receive 45 minutes. Students in grades 5, 6 and 7 get an hour of SportXcel exercises two days a week.

With more than 100 different exercise routines, Shalls never has to repeat a sequence so the exercises don’t get boring. The SportXcel warm-ups – which safely stretch muscles before more strenuous activity, leading to fewer injuries – open all P.E. classes.

Watch Bryant-Webster students go through their dynamic warmup paces:

“One good thing is that their program isn’t something you need $1 million in equipment for,” said Shalls. “They can do the exercises at home. It shows them you don’t need a $1,000 gym membership to have a good workout.”

DPS seeks business help to grow program

Marcia Benshoof, president of IMA of Colorado, said her company has a long record of partnering with Bryant-Webster. She jumped at the chance to bring SportXcel to the school.

“In Colorado, we’re lucky to be in the Top 5 states in adult fitness,” Benshoof said. “But we rocket down to 29th in child fitness. That’s a trend we can’t sustain,” she said, noting that today’s students are tomorrow’s work force.

“We are obsessed with fitness in our company, and I have a passion for corporate social responsibility,” she said. “This was one of those convergence of opportunities. It’s the right thing to do. We want to create a model program, and then challenge other companies to do the same.”

DPS has identified 14 other schools they believe are good candidates for SportXcel, and are hunting for businesses willing to help pay to make that possible.

“We salute IMA for stepping forward to make this happen at Bryant Webster,” said Nellie Cantu, deputy chief academic officer for DPS. “And we hope other local companies will step forward to make it happen at other schools.”

At least one other company, United HealthCare, has also committed to sponsoring a school, though that school hasn’t yet been identified.

Benshoof said her company has also committed to working with the youngsters to get fit.

“Our employees will be coming over and doing stretching with the kiddos from now to the end of the school year,” she said.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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