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Baltimore-area schools encourage teachers to hit the gym with onsite wellness programs

Kids aren't the only ones working up a sweat in school gyms.

The gymnasium at Gunpowder Elementary School was filled with activity one recent afternoon, but not with the first-grade physical education class.

The teachers — not the students — were the ones dressed in colorful tights and sneakers, jumping rope and running sprint drills across the floor.

They are among school faculty and staff across the region taking advantage of classes offered on school grounds, where they can hit the gym right after the last bell. The classes are part of general wellness programs offered by school systems to keep staff healthy, cut down on health care costs and improve employee attendance. In the process, teachers have an opportunity to set healthy examples for students.

"People are busy, and once you leave work and go home, you are less likely to work out," said Jenny Ward, employee wellness representative for Baltimore County Public Schools. "We wanted to beat down the barriers for why people don't exercise."

It is part of a movement across the country as school systems realize keeping the staff healthy is as important as making sure students are getting enough exercise and eating well. School systems in the region are offering classes to varying degrees. Baltimore City schools don't have a formal program, but individual schools may offer classes, said spokesman Edie House. The same is true in Carroll County.

In addition to exercise classes, schools are offering "Biggest Loser"-style weight loss challenges, nutrition classes, stress management seminars and walking clubs. Teachers can also get fresh produce delivered to their school.

"We offer our employees ways to stay healthy with a focus on both a healthy mind and a healthy body," Ward said.

Nationally, about 17 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years of their career, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Fitness and wellness programs that help teachers manage stress and burnout could help with retention, some experts said.

"As teachers, if we don't take care of ourselves, there is no way we have the emotional and physical stamina to do the hardest job in the world," said Mike Anderson, who wrote the book "Well-Balanced Teacher" for ASCD, a group that promotes best practices in teaching and learning. "It is fantastic that some schools are helping teachers be healthy."

Private companies have had wellness programs for years, but only recently have the programs begun cropping up in schools and other public sector entities, said Ron Z. Goetzel, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied corporate wellness programs for three decades.

"The programs really ought to be homegrown and should not be imposed by the employer," Goetzel said. "Programs need to emerge from the employees themselves and include things that they think will help them."

Baltimore County Public Schools began the exercise program as a pilot at the Battle Monument School last year and expanded it to others this year. The system at first paid for classes at each school; teachers and staff now pay $25 for 12 weeks of classes, and the school system subsidizes the rest.

The system contracts with Brick Bodies and Soza Fitness & Wellness, whose instructors teach classes that range from yoga and Zumba to boot camp and aerobics. The program has expanded to about 15 schools.

At Gunpowder Elementary in Nottingham, Kyle Ohl of Brick Bodies recently led 19 teachers, teachers' aides and a vice principal through an hourlong boot camp class.

"I want them to sweat and feel a little sore, but at the same time have fun," said Ohl. "I want it to be a little challenging."

The class performed various exercises for a few minutes each. They ended the class with a kickboxing routine and stretching.

"I can feel my heart going," one teacher said, beating her chest quickly with her hand after jumping rope. A vice principal taking the class said she hadn't held a jump rope since she was a kid 30 years ago.

"Ouch," said another teacher, grimacing as she lifted the right side of her body into a side plank, working out her obliques.

At the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, teachers pull stretch their bodies into child's pose, downward dog and other yoga poses. The Catholic school has offered yoga for staff members for several years, most recently through YogaWorks. Jane Blusiewicz, business manager at the school, said there is a built-in support system when the class is held at the school.

"It is relaxing and good for building relationships in the school," Blusiewicz said. "I also like being a part of a group with the other faculty and staff members."

Allison Korycki, a regional manager for YogaWorks, emphasized that camaraderie as well. "It gives them a healthy way to connect with each other," she said.

A group of teachers from Chapel Hill Elementary come to Gunpowder Elementary to take the classes. They joke with and encourage each other throughout the class. During the school day they are motivators, reminding each other to make it to class.

"I go to the gym, but sometimes it can get boring," said Kathleen Schaffer, a first grade teacher at Chapel Hill. "This is fun and something different."

A recent study by RAND, a nonprofit that works to impact policy through research and analysis, found that about half of U.S. workplaces offer wellness programs. The larger the program, the more complex the program, and the more accessible the program to employees, the more likely they were to participate, the study found.

While getting people to sign up for the programs can be difficult, RAND researchers found "meaningful improvements" in those who did participate, including the amount of time they exercised. Participation in a wellness program for more than five years was associated with lower health care costs and decreasing health care use.

The exercise classes offered at schools aren't meant to be the only form of activity for teachers and staff. Exercise once a week, for instance, is far from enough. But it can be a way to get some exercise or jump-start a new exercise program. Taking the classes can also show teachers how to destress after a long day, said Vicki Brick, CEO of Brick Bodies.

"Teachers give so much energy to kids and have a such a positive impact on their communities and these kids' lives," Brick said. "Let's make exercise easy for them."

Teachers can also set a good example for their students by leading a healthy life, experts said.

"It is supposed to be about the kids, but it has to be about the teachers as well," said Crystal Andre, Brick Bodies corporate program manager. "They can't teach healthy habits if they're not healthy themselves."

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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