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July 2, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

The new rigors of PE: How these kids are muscling their way through school


Leila Navidi

Senior Abel Gomez, 17, stretches his shoulders during CrossFit gym class at Rancho High School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.

CrossFit at Rancho High

Sophomore Priscilla Playo, 15, does shoulder presses during CrossFit gym class at Rancho High School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, September 12, 2012. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

When I was in school, gym class was a bit of a joke, and I’m sure the same is true for you. The kids who were athletic and competitive would play flag football or basketball while everyone else stood around and sullenly watched. The kicker was that in middle school, my gym teacher was morbidly obese.

And then there’s Michelle Van Buren.

She’s a physical education teacher and the varsity softball coach at Rancho High School who wants to make gym class a rigorous experience, one that will lead to weight loss, muscle gain, better flexibility, mental agility and toughness.

Van Buren has introduced a program called CrossFit to Rancho. You may have heard of CrossFit — the CrossFit Games started this month on ESPN2. It’s a full-body workout that mixes strength, cardio and flexibility and is designed to suit anyone, be it an athlete, a homemaker or a high school student. The affiliate CrossFit gyms — sort of like franchises but with more independence — emphasize healthy communities, which is how this workout regimen wound up at Rancho High.

Van Buren started training two and a half years ago with Jared Glover, a young UNR grad and entrepreneur whose expanded CrossFit 702 opens this month in the northwest valley.

“I was hooked, and I thought, ‘How can I bring this to the kids?’” Van Buren told me. She did, after becoming a nonprofit affiliate of CrossFit.

Last year, she taught one CrossFit class. The students, athletic director and football coach loved it, and this year, she’s added more.

About 35 kids file into the CrossFit room ­— a former weight room that has kettlebells, weights, PVC pipe for stretching, foam rollers and a rack that looks like a jungle gym for adults.

Van Buren tells them their workout. Stretching and a 200-meter run to warm up. Then they’ll use a 15-, 30- or 45-pound bar to do 10 shoulder presses, followed by one “burpee,” which is when you start in a standing position, drop to the ground, allowing your chest to touch the floor, then jumping back up, even leaping into the air, with hands held high. Then they’ll do nine shoulder presses and two burpees, then eight shoulder presses and three burpees, continuing in that pattern until they do one shoulder press and 10 burpees. This early in the school year, Van Buren wants them to hone their technique.

“Encourage one another,” Van Buren says just before they begin. This is another part of CrossFit — athletes think of themselves as teammates.

Omar Garcia is 16 and a junior who doesn’t play high school sports. But he is a star pupil in this class. He was in the class last year, and he says it was transformative. “Waking up sore after the first hard day of class, I decided I love this class,” he said. He believes he lost 20 pounds of fat and replaced it with nearly that in muscle.

Varsity wrestler Abel Gomez, 17 and a senior, says the program offers nice parallels to wrestling, including the full-body workout, endurance, mental toughness and commitment. His T-shirt reads, “My warmup is your workout.”

Van Buren is a CrossFit evangelist, believing the skills she’s teaching will allow her students to pursue fitness for the rest of their lives. She says surveys she gave at the end of last year indicated her students felt better about themselves, slept better and had more energy.

The only downside? At the moment, CrossFit is only an elective class. It should be a requirement.

As The New York Times reported last year, there are loads of new evidence that physical activity improves intellectual performance and brain health.

As Van Buren notes of the average sedentary teenager, “If you’re sluggish and tired, how well will you do in math?”

And although it may be unfair, the simple fact is employers tend to discriminate against obese applicants and workers. Many Rancho High School students are dealing with enough disadvantages as is and don’t need another, which makes fitness all the more important.

Finally, recent research indicates health habits, such as eating, exercise and smoking, are contagious, so your behavior influences the behavior of your friends and relatives, from one social network to another.

In other words, healthier Rancho High School students could improve the health habits of entire neighborhoods and, by extension, the rest of us.

There’s a movement afoot, both here and nationally, to improve academic achievement.

Why shouldn’t rigorous physical fitness go hand-in-hand with that goal?

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  1. What ever happened to the Presidential Fitness Council? And the standardized PE tests prescribed for students to take and pass? Worked for many years. What happened?


  2. Thanks to Ms. Van Buren for her dedication to the long term health of her students. Developing good habits of exercise in high school will reap benefits in the overall health and well-being wehn these students become adults.

  3. "CarmineD, using your philosophy the hand written letter work well for years. Then came the typewriter and then email why change?"

    Getting back to physical fitness and your point. Tell me what mode of communication was best for the physical and mental well being of the communicants? I.E. what causes them to get the most exercise physically as well as mentality? Letter writing, typing and or email?


  4. I don't know when or where Mr. Coolican went to school, but I can assure him that when I did in the L.A. School District PE was mandatory every semester starting in Jr. High (7th grade. 1964 for me) and NO ONE got to just stand around without a damn good reason from a doctor. True, there were exceptions such as marching band counting as PE during the fall, but that was about it.

    You stripped for PE and showered afterwards, no exceptions. If you didn't your grade went down. And as Carmine mentioned, there were indeed standardized physical tests that had to be met to earn a grade, including a timed mile run.

  5. Sadly, I've only had the PE under the old school ways and school of thought. Not the new, like others. Just as I had the old school math and not the new. It has served me well and I can still answer my daughter and grandaughters' questions about their school lessons. My grand daughter recently broke both bones in her arm at school on the "monkey bars." And was told it's a common occurence among grade schoolers. Right before the principle said the bars are not authorized, for that reason, but the county and school haven't gotten around to dissemble them yet and take them away.


  6. "So those energetic babies are swinging on the monkey bars, no jumping up to catch a hanging ring, no hanging upside down from any chin up bar, no leaping from swings, no, no, no..."

    The lawsuits arise because the equipment is there for the children to use without school/adult supervision. No teacher, administrator, adult supervisor, signage, etc was present to ward the kids away and off. Just all the kids and the bars and an invitation for them to use as they will. Sadly, my daughter arrived as a teacher was taking my grand daughter to the nurse. Who by the way did a sight exam and said my grand daughter's arm looks "anatomically fine." NO accident report written. Notta. A Friday, end of school day incident. At least the principal was honest with my daughter. Telling her this was the second occurence of a accident on the bars that same week, the other involving a broken arm too. And the bars were scheduled to be removed but hadn't been YET.


  7. "So take away the equipment...then what? "

    Not my rule and decision. School and county. Ask them.


  8. To indirectly answer your questions, after the orthopedic surgeon put my grand duaghter's arm in a cast, he asked if she had any questions. Yes, she said. When do I get to do cartwheels again? Since that day, she has been caught running and racing with boys in her class who claimed to be faster. And jumping in every rain puddle in her new shoes after our monsoons. I wish I had her energy.