Ten years ago, the Philadelphia School District decided to end the sale of carbonated drinks in school vending machines and cafeterias. Fruit juices, water and milk were installed as replacements. Skip ahead to December–the New York Times reported that between 2007 and 2011 the number of obese school children declined by 5 percent in Philadelphia.
Although experts were unclear as to why the city saw a decrease in obesity, neighborhoods have promoted healthier lifestyle choices to local children. In Hunting Park, Squash Smarts allows its participants to spend their afternoons playing a high-intensity cardiovascular sport year-round unlike seasonal mainstream sports such as baseball and football.
Squash is not the only heart-pumping physical activity that the Lenfest Center, located at 3890 N. 10th St., boasts. On the first floor, Michelle Grant, the executive director of the Diamonds of Double Dutch Society, teaches her class how to both jump and teach double dutch. Grant, who has performed in double dutch competitions, teaches about the rules and regulations of the sport, the different leagues and tournaments, and also how to keep score.
Though some people see this as an urban childhood pastime, Grant said that double dutch makes for a great cardio workout. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for African Americans, which Grant said she is trying to ward off.
“I’m here to restore the original urban sport of double dutch but also to expose [children] to the competitive aspect of double dutch,” Grant said. “We try to combat [heart disease] by acting through double dutch as well as bring awareness to the benefits of double dutch in preventing heart disease.”
The squash and double dutch programs are two sports made possible by the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative – a program derived from the Out-of-School Time Resource Center at the University of Pennsylvania. According to its website, the OSTRC aims to provide supervised activity for youth between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., which the organization notes as the times children are most prone to delinquent activity.
The PYSC, which offers a variety of other sports activities such as horseback riding, martial arts, rowing and cycling, turns to the OSTRC as a guide for how to get sports programs started, how to promote the clubs and, sometimes, how to find funding.
“Fitness is recognized as important in after school [programs] because as with many things, the opportunities for fitness and exercise and recess are diminishing in the school day,” Nancy Peter, the founder and director of the OSTRC, said. “Physical activity makes us feel good about ourselves, keeps us more alert and helps us do the daily things that we do.”
Peter said that after sitting all day, children need some sort of outlet to get their bodies moving even if it’s for a few minutes. The CDC recommends children between ages 6 and 17 receive 60 minutes of aerobic activity, muscle strengthening and bone strengthening for at least three days of the week.
However, if time is an issue, the American Journal of Health Promotion found in a study that short intensive bouts of movement can equal the same health benefits – such as low blood pressure and cholesterol – as prolonged exercise. It’s just a matter of finding the best time to exercise.
Daniel Helms, the shop owner of Simple Cycle located at 4455 N. Sixth St., said that some of his daily exercise comes from the minutes he rides his bicycle through the city. He also said that although biking is not the best exercise, it does have its benefits.
“[Biking] is a good cardio workout, but it’s not a total-body workout because you’re not really using your upper body for the most part,” Helms said. “It’s a great step towards living healthy, especially if you can integrate it in your life.”
But fitness is only half of a healthy lifestyle. Eating a well-balanced diet full of nutrients also affects obesity, weight loss and overall well-being.
At the Esperanza Health Center situated at 4417 N. Sixth St., the staff provides fresh fruits and vegetables to Hunting Park’s residents. It makes this happen through initiatives such as its Farm to Families program, where community members can buy boxes of fresh vegetables and fruits every week for less than $20.
“It’s just another opportunity to give the community something that is fresh and that’s not available in the community,” Rob Whitmire, a pastor at the Grace and Peace Community Fellowship, said. “We do have other corner stores that provide fruit, vegetables and other things at a different cost, but they’re not necessarily the freshest things that you can get.”
These foods are just the initial tools for a healthier, cleaner diet. Christina Yi, a registered dietician at Esperanza, invites families to partake in her cooking class once a month. She teaches families, who usually invest in fast, fried foods, how to cook quick and easy recipes with ingredients they might not be familiar with like raw chicken, avocado and tofu.
“Each cooking class we try to go by a theme like make-your-own-takeout,” Yi said. “[The class] is very flexible, which I think you have to be with the community here – really it’s just allowing them to feel free and safe in the kitchen.”
Yi said she tries goes into the classes with a curriculum in mind such as portion control, but she said she always pushes the fruits, vegetables and whole grains into every recipe because of their nutritional benefits. She pointed to the Choose My Plate program, which teaches people how to always get the right amount of vitamins and nutrients in every meal.
“We really want the community to get back into a healthy relationship with food,” Yi said. “Part of that is knowing that all foods can fit into a healthy eating plan.”