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Health Class 2.0

On Mother's Day we can't think of anything more important than the future of kid's health. SoulCycle speaks with rider NATALIA PETRZELA about an amazing youth wellness program she's created and gets advice about how to encourage our own kids to lead healthy lifestyles! 

How did you become passionate about and involved in kid's health? 
2011 was one of those moments when my stars kind of aligned and I realized how important youth wellness was to me and that I had a unique contribution to make. 
I had previously been a NYC public school teacher and was co-chairing the program in Education Studies at Eugene Lang College (The New School), so I knew how discouraging the school reform picture was: physical education was being cut, the state of school lunch was terrible, and student "success" was being increasingly tied to test scores and narrow academic markers, meaning wellness was at best considered a "frill" if it even made it on the agenda. These trends were most pronounced in the poorest schools, exacerbating social inequality, especially around health. 

In what felt like a totally different world, I was also teaching intenSati at Equinox and seeing how a mindful approach to exercise and food could not only change your body, but your mind. The stories my Equinox students had - of how they credited the energy they got from our workouts with successes at work, with their relationships, etc really suggested that physical and emotional wellness are crucial to a fulfilling life. It felt like there really was a "wellness revolution" going on in the culture at large, but unfortunately it seemed very limited by socioeconomics. My son was also two at the time and I was pregnant with my daughter, so these themes really hit home in a very personal way as I thought about the kind of lives I wanted to inspire them to live.

Tell us about your program HealthClass 2.0? 
HC2.0's tagline is "changing health education through experiential learning, one gym class at a time." We go into public schools, either during PE or after school, and in each session support kids in grades 6 to 12 to EAT, EXERCISE, and ENGAGE. Every day is built around a broad theme like "Making Choices" or "Choosing Love," and the kids first EXERCISE in a modified intenSati workout, combining affirmations with high-energy movement and amazing music. Then they EAT a healthful snack and finally ENGAGE, both discussing the food they are eating, from the perspective of taste, nutrition and their place in a "food system,"and also the ways they can implement their new knowledge in their lives. 

It is pretty simple: experiential food and fitness education as an avenue for the kids to see themselves as powerful decision makers who get to have a say over their own lives. We also work with food brands who donate everything from organic apples to "healthier snacks" like air-popped chips to use as teaching tools. Blueprint Juice was our founding food partner, and together with them we developed a way to embed food products in a curriculum to be used as teaching (rather than marketing) tools. 

How do kids react to affirmation exercise? Is that something that can be done at any age? 
I have been so pleasantly surprised that the kids overwhelmingly love it! Of course, at the beginning, some kids are resistant to call out "I AM STRONG! I AM WILLING TO CHANGE!" while getting sweaty and jumping around, but the result has been overwhelmingly positive - among girls AND boys. And yes, definitely, it is appropriate for any age- the skill of mastering one's conversation with oneself is crucial and can be developed early. 

My 3-year old told me the other day that he had felt scared while swimming, but that he told himself, "I can do this. I am strong enough," and that he felt so proud when he did swim despite his fear. Teaching kids to take power of their inner dialogue can really help build resilience and a sense of accomplishment. I see it in the stories the 700 kids we work with share all the time, not to mention in my own home!  

What have the effects of the program been? 
There are so many amazing stories about how these kids are taking the spark they ignite in our classes and firing up their own and their families' commitments to health in ways we couldn't have imagined. Just a sample: One girl said she convinced her dad to start exercising with her, which has become their 3x/week routine. In the course of our semester together he lost 30 lbs, and she proudly reported that he gives her all the credit for inspiring him. Can you imagine the sense of self-worth that must give a middle-schooler? 

Another example that I love because it shows how even a tiny change can show a child their power to effect change is a sixth grader who proudly reported that she had gotten her mother to buy plain rather than frosted Pop-Tarts after she used the label-reading skills we discuss on our first day of class. Another girl, a senior in high school, told me how she begins every morning with the affirmations from the intenSati warmup: "Everyday in a very true way, I co-create my reality."
Since we have really broad goals like "raising awareness" and "boosting self-esteem," it is a lot harder to measure results than if we were measuring something very concrete like BMI, so we are working on some comprehensive qualitative assessment measures now. Luckily, more and more research is coming out showing the positive effect of exercise and healthy eating on academic outcomes and social-emotional health, so we hope to build on that.

What are some tips you have for moms who want to try to get their kids to eat healthy foods? 
Two main points of advice:
1) Make healthy food fun
2) Lead by example

These may sound obvious, but think about how often "finishing your vegetables" or "eating your broccoli" is the chore we ask kids to accomplish before they get to do something really fun, like get dessert or play with their friends. I think the key is making the preparation and consumption of healthy foods fun in and of themselves. A simple example (and I am NOT a serious cook in any way, so anyone can do this): my son and I often make kale chips together — and guess what? — he is obsessed with them! The fact that they are connected to an activity we do together means the world.
You can easily recast dessert in the same way by making a fruit salad or any number of healthier baked goods together. Very important, and this gets to #2, is how we TALK about healthy food. If we keep framing healthy foods as the stuff we begrudgingly have to eat and the junk as the "treat," that is exactly how our children will see their choices. Often this involves pushing back on "kid food," since in so many restaurants kid's menus offer few healthy options. Though I am happy to let my kid indulge in chicken fingers and fries now and then, I tend to frame eating "grown-up food" like Mommy and Daddy as a huge privilege.
Once you reframe the conversation that way, healthy food begins to seem much more enticing! Of course, your lifestyles as parents mean so much as well. Because my husband and I are so active, we see our kids imitating us (watching a baby try to do a pushup is really cute, btw!) and taking exercise for granted as part of a balanced life.  

Is there any way to avoid the constant bombardment of sugary, unhealthy foods for kids? 
This is a tough one, not only because of the uniquely addictive quality of sugar, but also because so many of these snacks are branded with our kids' favorite characters. First of all, it is important not to become obsessed with prohibition. With the exception of fast food (which to me doesn't really even qualify as food), I let my kids try most things so that nothing starts to seem like a tantalizing "forbidden fruit."  
Again, I feel like it is about changing the conversation with them and talking about ALL food choices, not just ordering them to eat their vegetables. Unexplained directives don't really equip kids with the skills to be mindful consumers once parents aren't around to tell them what to do. I talk ALL the time to my kids about the health qualities of the foods they are eating, and really trump up the amazing benefits of eating well — we talk about gaining energy, being strong, growing tall, having strong, white teeth, etc. It's gotten to the point where my son asks me before he eats almost anything, "is this healthy? But is it VERY healthy?"
Just that he is asking I think is really important, and I try to give him honest answers that are age-appropriate - when he asks about a lollipop, I say, "No, not really, but that is why we only eat them sometimes and only after a healthy lunch." To me, the most important thing is to get kids asking questions about the foods they are consuming, and most of all for them to see food as something to enjoy.

How will you and your kids be celebrating Mother's Day? 
In the morning we have a playdate with two of my favorite mommies who are amazing role models of healthy parenting — intenSati creator Patricia Moreno and her wife Kellen and their three daughters and then off to a birthday party in the afternoon. And maybe even a little alone time for this mommy to catch a great workout before a family dinner...

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