AHS students asked to make healthy life choices

Published 11:13 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Andalusia High School students were encouraged to make healthy choices for their lives at an assembly to promote the school’s “wellness policy” Wednesday morning.

The wellness policy is based on federally mandated guidelines that promote healthy diet and exercise for U.S. high school students. Wednesday, four speakers visited the school to discuss various facets of the policy. Stephanie Dillard, child nutrition program director for Andalusia City Schools, spoke about the school’s nutrition plan; Janet Atkinson, a registered dietician, spoke about eating healthy at home; John Thomas, outpatient rehabilitation director at Andalusia Regional Hospital, discussed exercise and physical activity; and Lisa Patterson, a licensed counselor, talked about the dangers of stress.

At the close of the assembly, AHS principal Dr. Daniel Shakespeare offered himself as an example of why it is important to start healthy habits early.

“I’ve made poor choices in my life,” he said. “My doctor has told me, ‘you’ve got to change, and if you don’t change, you’re going to kill yourself.’ I stand before you now in danger of having a heart attack and in danger of having a stroke.

“We want you guys to be proactive. Change your habits now so you won’t have to worry about your health when you’re older. We want to focus on school-wide wellness and have our students be the best they can be — academically, physically and emotionally.”

Dillard explained that AHS, like other schools in the ACS, has to follow certain guidelines in its cafeteria. Fried foods are not permitted, the school has to serve its meals in limited portions and only 1 percent or skim milk is allowed. In addition, the school will not offer soft drinks, either in its vending machines or in the classroom.

These changes were developed to help stave off the growing trend of childhood obesity, a trend that is even more alarming in Alabama. In fact, in a 2007 survey, the state ranked second only to Mississippi in terms of percentage of citizens that are classified as obese — more than 30 percent.

“That’s not something to be proud of,” Dillard said. “If you go home and just watch TV or play video games all day, then it’s going to hurt your body. Here at the school, we want to be sure to provide you with healthy meal choices.”

Students were reminded that healthy dietary habits should be followed at home, as well. Atkinson provided a visual example of how unhealthy various foods can be, by representing those foods’ fat contents with various sized lumps of Crisco shortening.

“Fat is dangerous because it’s artery clogging,” she said. “Your arteries are like a hose, and as you eat more and more fat, that hose becomes thinner and thinner until it gets blocked. Then you have to worry about high blood pressure and dangers like heart attack and stroke.”

She explained that one of the more fattening things a person can take into his or her body is whole milk. Babies need the fat in whole milk as part of their diet, but once a person is past the age of 1 year old, then 1 percent or skim milk can provide the same nutritional value with none of the fat.

“Don’t be fooled that just eating a chicken sandwich means you’re eating healthy,” Atkinson added. “If that chicken is fried, then it can be just as fattening. When you are at the grocery store looking for snacks, think about getting some baked chips or lower fat chips rather than the regular potato chips.”

Thomas told students physical activity is particularly important at a young age — children 18 years or younger need 60 minutes of exercise a day, compared to just 30 minutes a day for those older than 18.

“It’s like Bo Jackson said, ‘Just Do It,’” Thomas said. “Do something, don’t just sit around. Some people aren’t competitive and don’t want to play sports, but you can still do other activities — you can walk, or canoe, or go for a bike ride.”

He added that it’s not enough to simply do physical activity, but it is important to exercise at a level that will achieve maximum benefit. A formula to determine the ideal heart rate is: 220 minus a person’s age, multiplied by 55-65 percent. For a 16-year-old with an average body build, the ideal heart rate would be 122.4 beats per minute.

“If you work out at that rate for 60 minutes a day, you’ll be healthy,” he said. “It’s important to get both aerobic activity, which is good for the heart and breathing, and to strengthen your muscles, because that builds up your metabolism.”

Patterson explained that exercise is also a great way to stave off the dangers of succumbing to stress.

“You can’t avoid stress sometimes, but there are lots of ways you can cope with it,” she said. “Exercise is great because your body creates endorphins that give you a natural high feeling. You can also write in a journal, or talk about your stresses with someone. It’s important not to let stress build up inside you.”