Case Study: Teachers Mix Physical Fitness and Classroom Learning

February 04, 2013 | Written By:

Today we're featuring a case study from Health in Mind, a new report from HSC and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), which details immediate solutions that can help close the achievement gap and create a healthy future for all children. Here, we learned about a teacher at McCutcheon Elementary School in Chicago who teaches her students about healthy choices through HSC's Fit to Learn program.


Jovita's pictures 073

Kindergarten teacher Dolores Navarro leads students in a physical activity break.

by Kadesha Thomas

Karen Jasinski sees all the early warning signs in her students—the hot chips and donuts for breakfast, washed down with a jug of blue juice. She sees the childhood obesity that leads students to  develop type two diabetes by seventh or eighth grade, not to mention added complications from asthma and other chronic conditions.

Jasinski teaches health and fitness to more than 350 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, at McCutcheon Elementary School on Chicago’s North Side. She gets two 45-minute classes with them each week, and the school does not have a gymnasium onsite.

Recognizing the need for more health education and fitness education, Jasinski enrolled in Fit to Learn. Healthy Schools Campaign created the Fit to Learn professional development program in October 2010. The program offers a series of full-day and half-day sessions to equip P.E. teachers, health teachers and core subject teachers with a roster of techniques and all necessary materials for incorporating health and fitness lessons into any subject and any school environment. “We can’t
change [the students’] chemical makeups, but we have to make changes if they’re not learning it at home,” said Jasinski, who completed Fit to Learn in May 2012.

Since launching, more than 130 Chicago public school teachers have participated in Fit to Learn. “With the limitations teachers face throughout the day and the specific curriculum guidelines they
have to follow, it’s hard to be flexible or incorporate fitness into the lessons,” explained Kristi Cox, training and program manager at Healthy Schools Campaign who leads Fit to Learn. “Our program is a simple way for teachers to introduce fitness to students and let them know it’s important, while still meeting guidelines and learning standards.”

The program trains teachers to make exercise and nutrition lessons a regular part of the classroom experience. It’s the difference between sitting at a desk to do a spelling lesson or playing the Nutritious Words game, one of Jasinski’s favorites. This exercise requires students to stand as the teacher tosses a multicolored beach ball around the classroom. The student who catches the ball has to name a fruit or vegetable that is the same color as the part of the ball where the student’s thumb lands. Then, the student spells that fruit or vegetable’s name while doing jumping jacks. There’s also the MyPlate Shuffle. In this activity, each food group is assigned a dance or exercise move. When the teacher flashes a picture of a certain food, students do the corresponding dance move to indicate its food group.

Jasinski has also learned how to incorporate yoga into her fitness lessons, and she has learned activities that allow the students to move around, even in a tight classroom space. Fit to Learn also includes sessions from medical experts on the latest pediatric research, including how the most prevalent childhood health issues can play out in the classroom and impact learning. The ultimate goal of the program, which is provided free of charge to teachers, is to empower teachers to change the culture of health and fitness at their schools.

Karen Pippen’s participation in Fit to Learn stemmed from her conviction that schools can no longer
afford to ignore how health issues are impacting students. “The best place to talk about health is at school, because some children are just not getting it at home,” said Pippen, a resource teacher who works with special education and gifted students at Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. She also teaches an after-school health class twice a week.

Since her first Fit to Learn session in July 2011, Pippen has been able to incorporate health messages and physical activity into her class time. Five-minute dance breaks have helped her students release energy, then refocus on class work. She has woven nutrition information into her lessons, encouraging students to choose water over sugary juice, pick healthy snacks and cut back on excessive portions.

“The kids love it,” she said. Pippen knew the lessons were working when, one day, a couple of students noticed an empty potato chip bag in the class trash can. “Were those your chips?” they teased. “Was that a healthy choice?”

As the year progresses, we'll share more about Health in Mind and the progress of this initiative! For more information or to view the full report, please visit

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