School Fitness Centers Aim to Improve the Health of Low-Income Students

Sophomores Albert Chen, left, and Anthony Altamirano pedal on exercise bikes in their new fitness center at Franklin High School in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood. Photo Credit: Claudia Boyd-Barrett

Fourteen-year-old Sophia Gutierrez had seen gyms on television but never stepped foot in a real one, until she walked into Benjamin Franklin High School’s new fitness center last month.

Inside were rows of elliptical machines, stationary bicycles, rowers, weight machines, and an array of fitness accessories such as weighted beanbags, jump ropes and agility ladders.

“I was really excited,” she said, as she pedaled vigorously on one of the elliptical machines alongside other students during an official opening for the center in February. “I feel more motivated now. I think it’s going to get me more fit.”

The fitness center was the second to open this year within the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of a long-running program run by UCLA Health. Called Sound Body Sound Mind, the program aims to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity, sedentary lifestyle and ill-health head-on by providing fitness equipment, training and physical education curriculums to underserved schools, primarily in the Los Angeles area.

Since launching in 1998, UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind has opened 119 fitness centers at middle schools and high schools in the LA Unified School district, and a handful in other states including Colorado, Massachusetts and Florida.

Schools selected for the program don’t have the budget to purchase gym equipment themselves, said Matthew Flesock, the program’s executive director. They also serve high numbers of low-income and minority students, two groups research shows are especially susceptible to obesity and its accompanying health problems.

Supporters of the fitness centers say teaching students to use gym equipment gives them the tools to take charge of their own health and fitness, skills that can serve them well into adulthood. 

The fitness centers complement other physical activities students might do at school such as organized sports. Teaching students to use gym equipment gives them the tools to take charge of their own health and fitness, said Flesock, skills that can serve them well into adulthood.

“The data shows that a large majority of students as they age through high school or beyond stop playing sports. Think of how many adults you know that play competitive sports to stay in shape – it’s limited,” he said. “Into adulthood, if you want to live a healthy and active lifestyle, you have to be able to understand fitness, you have to be able to use a gym. It’s more widely available to people.”

The program has more immediate benefits, too, according to UCLA Health. Only about a third of California students pass the state-mandated fitness test, an assessment of aerobic capacity, body composition, muscle strength, and flexibility taken in grades five, seven and nine. In Los Angeles, the pass rate averaged 38 percent last year at the 12 Los Angeles schools where Sound Body Sound Mind implemented its program. That jumped to 57 percent after students completed eight weeks of the program, Flesock said.

Additionally, researchers have conducted behavioral surveys of Los Angeles students enrolled in the program. Students surveyed report having an improved self-image and taking better care of their bodies following the program.

“Research is growing showing that physical activity and exercise improve academic outcomes. It improves mental health, it improves social health and social wellbeing,” said Flesock. “Most people think about physical fitness and exercise as about improving ones physical appearance and body. But the benefits are massive, academic, social, mental health.”

Maribel Cortez, a veteran physical education teacher at Franklin High School, said the Sound Body Sound Mind fitness equipment and curriculum had helped liven up her classes and get students more engaged. In the past she relied on body-weight exercises such as pushups and squats, and asked students to run laps. Because class sizes number 50 to 60 kids, some would have to wait on the sidelines and take turns, she said.

Now she has multiple fitness tools that she can use to create circuit stations that students rotate through, keeping everyone busy, she said.

“This is an amazing treat. It’s like Christmas for physical education,” she said. “It’s state-of-the-art equipment, easy to use, and the kids love it, they just want to get on it. And that’s going to make my job even better, because that’s the hard part of P.E., is motivating kids to work out.”

Principal Regina Marquez-Martinez said she hoped the fitness program would encourage students to take better care of their bodies in general, including watching what they eat. Getting them to eat well is a challenge, she said, given that more than 90 percent of students at the school come from low-income families.

“The reality is this, to eat healthy costs more money… My students come in with not the best eating habits. You see them coming in with hot Cheetos and a Gatorade for breakfast,” she said. “I’m hoping that once they start seeing that they work so hard to maintain a healthy body that they start then to change those eating habits and make sure they make healthier choices.”

Flesock said the goal is to ultimately expand the program to every school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. UCLA Health also helps schools in other parts of the country establish the program upon request, although it hasn’t tracked outcomes of the program outside of the state. Donors and local foundations cover the $40,000 to $50,000 cost of establishing the fitness centers and providing the curriculum and teacher training, he said.

The director said the program is easily replicated and he’d like to see it implemented at school districts elsewhere.

“I really think that if every school had the resources necessary to provide impactful physical education for students, you could truly change childhood obesity numbers,” he said. “Students spend the majority of their waking hours in schools, so schools are the most important place for students to learn not only math, English, science, but to learn how to be healthy.”

Ashlesha Datar, director of the Program on Children and Families at the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California agreed schools are a good place to cultivate healthy habits in children, given how much time they spend there. Many school physical education programs are currently insufficient, she said. Programs like Sound Body Sound Mind could be an answer, but more research is needed to see how effective they are over the long term, she opined.

“I think bringing in these fitness programs and making them more exciting and enjoyable to kids, that certainly sounds like it’s on the right track,” Datar said. “We need more rigorous evaluation of these kinds of programs, and we need replication of these programs to see …is it working in different contexts.”

Noe Crespo, an assistant professor with the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, said efforts to improve child health and fitness need to extend beyond schools. Community centers and parks, for example, can serve as venues for encouraging families to pursue healthy activities together at a low cost. Crespo is currently working to implement a program called Athletes for Life in Chula Vista, which teaches children and their parents about exercise and nutrition.

“Research suggests if you have the parent involved and the child involved in the same effort, you get better results,” he said.

“I think it’s unfair to think that schools should be the primary drivers of solving the problem,” Crespo continued. “Schools can and should be part of the solution …but I think there are many other organizations and locations where children can be active and should be active.”

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