There is a pretty good chance if you stop by or phone the principal’s office at Fair Haven Union High School, you’ll find Brett Blanchard slightly out of breath.

The joke around his school in rural Vermont is that Blanchard “walks the walk,” because he not only enthusiastically advocates for fitness, but he often holds meetings in his office or returns phone calls while walking on a treadmill. “My goal as an educator is to engage my students in activities they can enjoy and reap long-term benefits from for the rest of their lives,” he says. “I think all of us have to be role models for that.”

Blanchard wanted to get the school’s 450 students more active, so he decided to develop ways each student could find their own path to better fitness. At the core is an individualized plan students develop as freshmen, outlining their fitness levels, their goals, and how they can accomplish them.

Thanks to the program, the school has seen an overall improvement in academic performance and school culture—and many students have individual success stories, including one who lost 20 pounds and another not prone to fitness who became a personal trainer and leader at an outdoor center, Blanchard says.

Partnership With SHAPE

In developing the program, Blanchard enlisted the help of his two PE teachers and worked with the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), a 130-year-old nonprofit group committed to youth health.

It was clear to Blanchard that traditional athletics weren’t enough. “They exclude the vast majority of students, do not foster individuality, and are rarely practiced throughout life,” he says. He encourages students to be creative and customize a plan to their needs and goals. The new extracurricular activities the school supports include snowboarding, hunting, fishing, and obstacle courses. Some students get exercise with camping, backpacking, and mountaineering; others developed a local 5K race and Frisbee tournaments or other competitions. One girl was encouraged to alter her senior schedule to help train for a national equestrian competition.

Capitalizing on CrossFit

William Bode, a physical education teacher at Performance Learning Center High School in Charlotte, NC, has introduced an array of less-traditional sports to his students, including disc golf, golf, orienteering, self-defense, and “a variety of adventure education activities that promote team building and problem solving,” he says. “Once students reach high school, they have formed their own opinions, good and bad, on physical activity. The first thing I learned—long before it became an education buzzword—was that student choice increases engagement.”

In addition, Bode convinced his principal to initiate a 20-minute exercise break at the start of the day—during which students could choose from a variety of activities, including games, biking, aerobic exercise, and dance.

Movement Breaks for Teachers

Pete Driscoll, who teaches physical education at Hartland Elementary School in Vermont (grades K–8), has found that his older students are most likely to be active when the type of exercise fits them specifically and when they get a useful, interesting message about its value. In addition to the challenging and creative PE instruction he provides, he helps students learn workout routines in an elective class and after school with CrossFit-style training that features a mix of exercises. He also helps teachers develop “movement breaks” in class, which his administrators say has resulted in higher levels of engagement and fewer behavior issues.

“When my students start to understand why exercise enhances their health, wellness, and cognitive capacity, they begin to buy into its importance and relevance to their life,” Driscoll says. “From there, they seem to apply it much more willingly.”

An All-For-One Approach

Jeff Moreno, assistant principal at nearby Hartford High School, says it helps to have a staff member who wants to work on the issue schoolwide. “When you have an educator who has a passion for fitness education, get out of their way and actively work to remove as many roadblocks to the program’s success as you can,” Moreno says. “That meant letting Pete do some creative fundraising, getting him in front of the school board, carving out time in the schedule for his initiatives, and converting a classroom into a fitness center. It was all well worth it in the interest of supporting a culture of fitness in school.”

In PE classes taught by Liz Burkhart at Wilson High School in West Lawn, PA, you’ll find students doing things like glow-in-the-dark yoga, fitness drumming, and getting passionate lessons about healthy living. “I don’t have fancy workouts, state-of-the-art equipment, or the most extravagant technology,” she says. “That won’t change a student’s desire, ability, or willingness to participate in PE class.”

In Burkhart’s program, students explore new types of exercise and healthy eating in PE class and schoolwide, then create their own approach to fitness that makes exercise a regular part of their life.

“That’s the beauty of school fitness,” Moreno says. “There’s truly something for everyone. The concept of being ‘better than yesterday’ and having something like an individual ‘workout of the day’ allows each student to focus on what they need or what they like, setting a simple goal, then working to reach it.”

Lynn Hefele, an award-winning PE teacher in the Huntington Union Free School District in New York and president of Literature Enhanced Physical Education, says she wants principals to keep two points in mind about the importance of fitness and the need to make it a priority. “Exercise not only prepares the brain for learning, but also helps students perform better,” she says, noting that school PE programs are often threatened with budget or staff cuts. “But we also must recognize our children’s health is more important than test scores.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Making It Work

There are several steps principals can take to make fitness a priority at their school, says Lynn Hefele, PE teacher in Huntington, NY, and president of Literature Enhanced Physical Education, which provides resources for PE classes.

  • Have a good understanding of the issues related to fitness and promote them, including data about obesity and information showing that students perform better in school, get better test scores, and improve brain function with exercise. Check out this video that describes the effort by Naperville High School in suburban Chicago that got national attention:
  • Create a wellness committee that sets policies for proper nutrition and physical activity, perhaps advocating for it district-wide.
  • Meet and/or exceed state guidelines for physical education.
  • Ensure that all physical education teachers are certified. Provide professional development for them, and demand a quality program that is standards-based and follows best practices.
  • Create a building-wide initiative to promote physical activity beyond the gymnasium doors. Allow PE teachers to be leaders of the effort schoolwide.
  • Involve students in the creation and implementation of fitness programs.
  • Purchase heart rate technology that gives students feedback on their health and level of exercise.
  • Check out online resources that promote fitness, such as