There was no comfortable place for 17-year-old Alexus Burkett in her school’s typical sports program of soccer and lacrosse and basketball.
“They don’t let heavyset girls in,” she says.
Alexus was “bullied so bad about her weight,” says her mother, Angelica Dyer, “and there was no gym that would take her when she was 14, 15 years old. There was no outlet.”
But Alexus has found a sports home that is helping her bloom as an athlete: an innovative program called “OWL On The Water” that offers rowing on the Charles River specifically for kids with weight issues.
She has lost more than 50 pounds over half a year, but more importantly, says her mother, “They’ve given me my daughter’s smile back.”
Alexus Burkett stretches during warm-ups before “OWL On The Water” instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
“It’s given me a lot of good strength and it’s making me more outgoing,” Alexus says. “We’re all best friends and we’re all suffering with the same problem — weight loss — so we’re more inspiring each other than we are competing against each other.”
OWL On The Water offers a small solution to a major national problem: According to the latest numbers, 23 million American kids are overweight or obese, and only about one quarter of 12-to-15-year-olds get the recommended one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Heavier kids are even less likely to be active, and only about one-fifth of obese teens get the exercise they need, the CDC finds.
“I know I need to be active, but please don’t make me play school sports!” That’s what exercise physiologist Sarah Picard often hears from her young clients at the OWL — Optimal Weight for Life — program at Boston Children’s Hospital that sponsors OWL On The Water.
Many gym classes still involve picking teams, “and my patients are the ones that are always picked last,” she says. “You’re the biggest one, you’re the last one, you’re picked last, and you’re uncomfortable.”
They are strong, powerful people.
– Sarah Picard
School fitness testing is important, Picard says, but it, too, can be an ordeal: “I have kids who sit in my office and tell me that they didn’t go to school for a week because they wanted to miss the fitness testing,” she says.
While many a coach might see bigger bodies as poorly suited to typical team sports, Picard sees them as having different strengths. Particularly muscular strength.
“What I’ve observed is that these kids are much better at strength and power-based activities,” she says. And rowing is particularly good for them, she says, because though it is strenuous, it is not weight-bearing, and thus more comfortable for heavier bodies — yet a heavier, strong body can pull an oar much harder than a smaller person’s body. The program begins by building on that muscular strength, she says, and then works on aerobic fitness. Continue reading