Boston Moms: Let’s Spend Olympics Savings On Gym And Recess For Kids

(Steven Depolo/Flickr)

(Steven Depolo/Flickr)

By Kate Lowenstein
 and Ramika Smith
Guest contributors

We have a suggestion for how to spend some of the billions of dollars that Boston will likely save by not hosting the Olympics: How about we invest even 1 percent of that into the bodies and brains of our children by ensuring they get ample physical education and recess time?

Instead of spending billions to have elite adult athletes playing sports in our city, we can at least give our own Boston Public Schools kids the chance to run and play here.

Most parents of kids in the city’s public schools assume their children get recess every day, as we did when we were kids, but the reality turns out to be quite different. While the CDC recommends that all children get at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day, and at least 30 minutes of school-time physical activity, many of our schools allow for as little as 20 minutes, if that.

Over the past two decades, accelerated by No Child Left Behind’s focus on testing, the tendency has been to reduce or eliminate physical education and recess. And our school administrators and legislators look the other way without recognizing the overwhelming amount of evidence that shows the significant academic and mental health benefits of these physical activity breaks.

Recess and physical education are as integral to a long school day as are Math, Science, and English.

In January of 2009, the journal Pediatrics published a groundbreaking study of 11,000 third-graders, comparing those who had little or no daily recess with those that had more than 15 minutes of recess per day. The findings show that children who have more recess time behave better in the classroom and are likelier to learn more.

In January of this year, The Boston Foundation released a report: “Active Bodies, Active Minds: A Case Study on Physical Activity and Academic Success in Lawrence, Massachusetts.” The report found that only 15 to 20 percent of Massachusetts children are meeting the 60-minute daily recommendation for physical activity and only 10.2 percent were meeting the school-time recommendation of 30 minutes.

It also underscored what we already know from many other studies; that children in schools that provide an adequate amount of time and opportunity (and encouragement) for daily physical activity, in the form of recess, gym classes and movement breaks, have higher MCAS scores in both math and ELA. Continue reading

Roxbury Center Targets Health Disparities In Boston’s Poorest Neighborhoods

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

When it comes to health in Boston, it’s hard to deny there’s a great divide across neighborhoods.

Need proof? A 2013 Boston Public Health Commission report found that, from 2000 to 2009, the average life expectancy for Boston residents was 77.9 years. But in the Back Bay, it was higher — 83.7 years — compared to Roxbury, where the average life expectancy was 74.

If you want to get even more local, you can analyze the same data by census tract, where life expectancy varies by as many as 33 years: 91.9 years in the Back Bay area between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street, and 58.9 years in Roxbury, between Mass. Ave. and Dudley Street and Shawmut Avenue and Albany Street. That’s according to a 2012 report from the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury is trying to tackle the disparities in a very concrete way. With the launch of a new fitness club and community garden, the center is trying to make healthy food and exercise opportunities available and affordable to all, despite geography.

“What we’re trying to do is to remove those social determinants and barriers that are causing these [health] disparities,” said Frederica Williams, president and CEO of the health center.

‘If I Sweat, I’m Doing Something Right’

The fitness club and garden initiatives just launched June 27, but the Whittier Health and Wellness Institute is already drawing in community members.

Eight months ago, Wanda Elliott weighed 256 pounds. On a visit to her Whittier Street physician, she learned her blood pressure was high — high enough that she had to start taking medication. That was the wake-up call that motivated her to change her diet and start exercising.

“I was dragging,” she said.

Elliott began exercising at a local Y but joined the Whittier Street fitness club when it opened. In eight months, she has lost 52 pounds, leaving her 4 pounds shy of her 200 pound goal weight.

“I have two knee replacements, so I have to keep active every day,” she said. Trainers at the center helped her learn to use the exercise machines, and now it feels like a routine, she said.

“I feel addicted to working out. I feel like if I sweat, I’m doing something right,” she said. “From 256 to 204, I feel like a model. I can walk the runway; that’s how energized I feel now.”

Elliott is now off her blood pressure medication. She is working on making changes to her diet “slowly but surely,” drinking more water, eating more salad, and cutting back on red meat. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Because It’s Not Sitting

If you’re like me, this bout of November weather in June provides yet another excuse to ratchet back your exercise regime. And that means more sitting. Do not give in. Here, two more reports underscore the perils of sitting, one from the U.K. and one out of New York City.

In the U.K., sedentary behavior “now occupies around 60% of people’s total waking hours in the general population, and over 70% in those with a high risk of chronic disease. For those working in offices, 65–75% of their working hours are spent sitting,” according a new study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.



To try to get workers off their bums, public health experts issued a consensus statement urging periodic stand-up breaks during the day.

According to the panel backing the new recommendations:

…for those occupations which are predominantly desk-based, workers should aim to initially progress towards accumulating 2 hours a day of standing and light activity (light walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to a total accumulation of 4 hours a day… To achieve this, seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing-based work, the use of sit–stand desks, or the taking of short active standing breaks.

Along with other health promotion goals (improved nutrition, reducing alcohol, smoking and stress), companies should also promote among their staff that prolonged sitting, aggregated from work and in leisure time, may significantly and independently increase the risk of cardiometabolic diseases and premature mortality.

Even New Yorkers, who live in one of the best walking cities on the planet, are sitting far longer than what’s considered healthy, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers at New York University, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Researchers found great differences among various demographics — surprisingly, higher income folks spent more time sitting compared to those with lower incomes. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: To Promote Cognitive Health (It’s Official)

(Diabetes Care/Flickr)

(Diabetes Care/Flickr)

The venerable Institute of Medicine came out with a report this week on cognitive aging (yes, that means you…) and a few things that can help avert the inevitable. The panel’s No. 1 recommendation? “Be physically active.” Enough said.

To be clear, “cognitive aging is not a disease,” the report notes. “Instead, it is a process that occurs in every individual, beginning at birth and continuing throughout the life span.”

That process impacts the brain like no other body part, the authors say. And while the extent and quality of cognitive aging (read: decline) varies greatly, many older men and women will experience problems related to the speed at which they process information, the ability to problem-solve and make decisions and, of course, memory. (Lost keys, anyone?)

Putting a little silver lining on things, the IOM news release quotes the chairman of the committee, Dan G. Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, saying that “…wisdom and knowledge can increase with age, while memory and attention can decline.”

So what should we do about our aging brains? The report is clear:

· Be physically active.

· Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.

· Regularly discuss and review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a health care professional. A number of medications can have a negative effect — temporary or long term –on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medication.

The committee also identifies additional actions for which there is some scientific evidence to suggest positive effects on cognitive health:

· Be socially and intellectually active, and continually seek opportunities to learn.

· Get adequate sleep and seek professional treatment for sleep disorders, if needed.

· Take steps to avoid a sudden acute decline in cognitive function, known as delirium, associated with medications or hospitalizations.

· Carefully evaluate products advertised to consumers to improve cognitive health, such as medications, nutritional supplements, and cognitive training.

Continue reading

Hey, Guys: Post-Holiday Belly Fat? Better Start Lifting

(Mr.TGT/Flickr via Compfight)

(Mr.TGT/Flickr via Compfight)

If your resolutions included a re-energized commitment to cardio, you might want to reconsider your program.

A recent study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reports that for men over 40, aerobic exercise alone may not be enough to rid you of your ring around the middle.

The study, published in the journal Obesity, found that men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training gained less abdominal fat than men who did 20 minutes of daily aerobic activity. A combination of cardio and weight training led to optimal results. Continue reading

New Year’s Resolutions: How To Keep Them Alive



By Jessica Alpert

You know the drill. Lose weight. Save more money. Keep in better touch. Or as one of my Facebook friends recently announced “make a new piece of clothing every month.”

I hate the gym in January since it’s crowded to the gills with exercise hopefuls.  By February, the regulars reign again and the wait for the treadmill is nonexistent.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology from researchers at the University of Scranton found that 45 percent of us made New Year’s Resolutions in 2014–and almost 90 percent of us failed at keeping them.

Maybe not a huge surprise but what can we do to maintain those good intentions?

Dr. Philip Levendusky, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Psychology Department at McLean Hospital, recently shared some tips.

First, is change even necessary?  Do you already work out three days a week and now you’re promising to do six? It’s a worthwhile goal but acknowledge what you already do. “We don’t always have to be striving for perfection or feel like we’re a work in progress,” Levendusky writes.

Next, remember that small changes can make a big impact.  Do you want to be a better partner? Instead of creating a list of 10 promises, start with something actionable and attainable–like being a better listener during dinner.  According to Levendusky, “building goals that can have an immediate and positive response,” may actually help keep you on track beyond the month of January.

Continue reading

My Body, My Life: How A Kidney Transplant Got Me Back On The Dance Floor



By Grace Clackson
Guest Contributor

In recent years, exercise was not on my radar.  Like many others, I was busy balancing work and family. Honestly, I thought regular gym dates were only for overweight people.  It wasn’t always this way — I loved dancing growing up but just couldn’t make room for it in my adult life.

But all of that changed in 2010.

I found myself more and more fatigued and around the same time my mother died from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), I learned I too had inherited the genetic kidney disorder. Most people with PKD, a chronic kidney disease where clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, get the disease between their 50’s and 60’s.

I was on the verge of kidney failure at 44 years of age.

Continue reading

Armpit Fat? There’s A YouTube Video For That

By Jessica Alpert

Did YouTube kill the video star?

That’s what some fitness-types are saying. Consumers can access exercise programs of all stripes. From old-world Jack LaLanne to ’80s Jane Fonda, from Insanity to the current YouTube HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions — the American fitness diet continues to evolve. At the moment, it’s all about free and on-demand.

When Cassey Ho made her first YouTube exercise video, she had her pilates students in mind. Thirty of them. It was 2009 and Ho had recently moved from California to Boston to try a career in fashion buying. A few months later, she checked in on that YouTube video and there were thousands of views.

So she decided to make more.

The Blogilates App allows users to search for fellow "POPsters" in their area. (Courtesy of Cassey Ho/Blogilates)

The Blogilates App allows users to search for fellow “POPsters” in their area. (Courtesy of Cassey Ho/Blogilates)

By 2011, Cassey Ho was posting one video a week, calling her unique brand of pilates “POP Pilates,” essentially pilates to pop music. She named her channel “Blogilates” and an empire was born. Today, Cassey Ho was 1.8 million subscribers to her YouTube channel — 60,000 page views a day and 8 million views a month.

Ho credits humility as key to her success. “I think the reason for it’s [Blogilates] growth is the fact that I love teaching. I genuinely want to help people.”

Reach people she does — Blogilates is now the top fitness channel on the network. Ho also has a book deal, a DVD release and more original designs from her clothing line in the works for 2015.

YouTube has become the DIY video destination, from cupcakes to cosmopolitans, appliance repairs and yes — ab workouts — there’s a video for every problem. Even armpit fat. Huge audiences combined with social media savvy has made the everyday people who dole out this advice into celebrities. “People cry and shake and get crazy when they see me,” says Ho. She occasionally does tours to give live classes around the country. “When you go to Blogilates meet-ups, there are hundreds of people there and I get to hear their stories…and how these videos helped them battle eating disorders, lose a ton of weight. They are so positive and kind — they don’t mind having to wait five hours in line to meet me. They make me want to work harder.”

And it’s these young enthusiastic fans that are driving the YouTube content bonanza. In the first quarter of 2014, according to Nielsen, consumers aged 18-24 viewed 2 hours and 28 minutes of online videos per week — that’s nearly an hour more than the average for all adults.

Cassey Ho isn’t alone. There’s the two friends behind “Tone It Up,” Elliot Hulse who creates videos like “Exercise for Heartbreak and Pain,” and the husband and wife team behind “Fitness Blender” (known simply as Daniel and Kelli). Daniel and Kelli started their channel in their garage — in fact they still record videos there.

According to OpenSlate, a video analytics platform that analyzes all ad-supported content on YouTube, Fitness Blender averages around 8 million views per month. In an introduction video, Daniel explains that they started their channel because they “there weren’t any fitness websites out there that actually focused on fitness — they were all about make-up, all about clothes, all about what you look like — not about what you do.” Kelli adds that “everyone should have access to health fitness information regardless of their income or access to a gym.”

Tolga Ozyurtcu, a clinical assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin, says the YouTube brand of exercise is more “personalized and more personal.

“In the past, the marketplace of exercise television or videos had to be more middle-ground…the new stuff is hyper-focused.” Continue reading

Where’s Laurie? When ‘McFitness’ Axes Your Beloved Exercise Instructor

Exercise class members posted this tribute video to instructor Laurie

By Constanza Villalba, PhD
Guest contributor

In the annual survey of fitness trends from Zumba to yoga, one “trend” remains consistently among the top three: the importance of high-quality fitness professionals.

Why are skilled, educated instructors so important to fitness? Many reasons, but one seems to be the relationships they form with the people they teach. One recent study found that people are more likely to remain engaged in their own fitness — and indeed, may even be more satisfied in life — if they have kind, caring exercise instructors who are genuinely invested in the success of their students.

Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?

– Huffington Post Headline

“The important thing here was the perception of the leader’s interaction and the message they were sending,” says Dr. Theresa Brown of the University of Kansas, the study’s lead author. “Instructors who say, ‘Hey, give it your best effort and focus on your own improvement; don’t worry about what others are doing.’ Those are the instructors whose students stay engaged.”

None of this comes as a surprise to me, or to the roughly 40 people who have joined me in a campaign this fall to bring back a beloved fitness instructor named Laurie, who was fired from our Boston-area gym in August.

When we learned that Laurie had been dismissed without cause, we formed a Facebook group and started notifying other members about the group and the need to coalesce.

We wrote letters complaining to the owners, we wrote Yelp reviews (some of which were removed) condemning the gym’s decision, and several of us even filmed the short video above showcasing Laurie’s skills. Finally, after realizing that the gym’s management had no intention of bringing Laurie back, many of us, myself included, canceled our memberships.

Laurie taught an array of classes, including barbell, step aerobics, power yoga, and kickboxing, all of which were impeccably planned, richly choreographed, and layered so that people of all fitness levels could choose the intensity that suited them. Her skill as an instructor was reflected in the numbers of students she would attract, from 15 to 25 followers for each of her six classes.

We missed her. Many of the gym’s members asked the management about Laurie’s departure. In a public Facebook statement, the new manager said simply that the gym was going in a different direction.

The night I canceled my membership, which I’d had for 14 years, I realized that this “new direction” meant replacing Laurie’s classes — which she had creatively designed and choreographed herself — with prepackaged, so-called “pre-choreographed” classes whose routine is scripted by a corporation that does not allow instructors to vary moves or add personal or creative touches.

A Huffington Post piece by a health coach calls this “McFitness” and asks in its headline, “Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?”

Grace DeSimone, a group fitness expert, has seen many gyms go through the type of turmoil my gym is going through when they make the transition to pre-choreographed classes. She says people may get unhappy and complain or even quit, but she has never seen class members go to the lengths we did.

Laurie’s style of teaching, DeSimone explains, is called “freestyle,” but that name makes it sound like she’s winging it, which could not be further from the truth. Instead, freestyle is about actively and expertly customizing a workout to the audience at hand, Desimone says.

Desimone understands why gyms shift to pre-choreographed classes. “Even if Laurie has a strong following, the day that she’s out sick or can’t make it in, the gym is stuck,” she explains, “because no one can do it quite like Laurie does.” With pre-choreographed classes, any instructor can take over and teach the same class. Continue reading

If You Build A Crew Program For Overweight Kids, They Will Row — And Get Fitter

OWL On The Water participants bring a shell out of the Community Rowing boathouse in Brighton, and to a dock on the Charles River. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Alexus Burkett, left, helps carry the shell toward the water. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)Coach Sandra Cardillo instructs the kids before they go out onto the water. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)Rowing coach Kate Simeon instructs the kids out on the Charles. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)An OWL On The Water boat moves past the Community Rowing facility as daylight fades. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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 Dwyer during warm-ups before instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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