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Reading, Writing, and Reps

A Linda Vista charter school pumps up its curriculum with CrossFit Kids


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Weighty Facts

Only one in three children in the U.S. is physically active every day.

American children typically spend more than 7.5 hours every day in front of a digital screen.

About 45% of American children who live in poverty are overweight.

Obesity-related illnesses cost the U.S. about $190.2 billion annually.

Source: President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition

Nine-year-old Luke Cano loves push-ups. He says his arms have gotten strong over the last year and he can see muscles forming. But like most of the general public, he could live without burpees, an exercise that moves quickly from a squat position to a push-up to a jump.

Exercise is a key part of the school day for Luke and more than 100 of his classmates at Empower, a Linda Vista charter school that focuses on fitness and health. The school not only meets the state recommendation of 100 minutes of physical education every five days, it also incorporates 80 minutes of CrossFit, an intense fitness program with a strong community following, and 50 minutes of mindfulness, which involves breathing and stretching exercises.

The school is the brainchild of Demi Brown, a longtime teacher who founded Empower in 2014 and serves as its principal. Brown also happens to be a credentialed CrossFit trainer. “It’s our vision to create critical thinkers who live healthy and fit lifestyles,” Brown says. “They’re not just going to P.E. once a week and being rewarded with treats. It’s a regular part of everyday life.”

Twice a week, students break a sweat learning fundamental movements such as lunges, thrusters, sumo deadlifts, and planks—all typically found in popular high-intensity CrossFit classes. That’s on top of three regular physical education classes a week and a daily mindfulness practice.

Staggering statistics about youth activity levels are part of what led Brown to form Empower. Just one quarter of American children between the ages of 6 and 15 are physically active for at least 60 minutes a day, according to the U.S. Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. The report also found that P.E. classes at elementary and middle schools are often taught by untrained teachers, resulting in less effective activity for students. “About one-third of children [in the U.S.] are overweight. We know kids are more successful when not just their minds are exercised, but their bodies,” Brown says.

Luke’s mother, Deena, whose younger son, Jude, also attends Empower, says P.E. was definitely lacking at the two schools her boys previously attended. “The routine was, sit in a chair, do this work, sit in a chair,” Deena says. “I felt like my kids were dying a slow death. They’re very active boys, so it’s impossible for them to sit in a seat all day, and it’s not healthy, either.”

Empower’s CrossFit coach, Russella Allison, says it isn’t unusual to find kids practicing their handstands during recess, and teachers often have students do jumping jacks or squats while they transition from lesson plans. On top of that, students don’t bother bringing unhealthy food: Snacks like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are banned. “It’s interwoven throughout the entire curriculum,” Allison says. “All the students are physically fit kids. We don’t have any overweight children here.”

Any child in grades K through 6 can apply. (Empower had a lottery for the kindergarten level last year, when there was a surplus of applicants.) Some of the students arrive overweight but quickly slim down within a few months, and many enter with a disinterest in P.E. Most parents send their kids to the school just so they’ll become more active. A few parents say their kids rarely or never had P.E. previously, because although schools are required to have it, the enforcement of how much exercise kids actually get can vary widely.

As for any concern about CrossFit overworking a child’s muscles and causing injury, Brown and Allison insist their program is made with the kids in mind, and that no two grades do the same workouts. For thrusters and dead lifts, the kids do the motions without weights. Older students who master the form are then introduced to small weights of 2 to 10 pounds.

The focus on fitness is what engages lively 7-year-old Jude, who—unlike his older brother, Luke—loves burpees. “I like the jumping part. I can do 10 burpees in a row,” Jude says. “If you don’t exercise a lot, you could get diabetes. You’ll lose your fingernails.”

Survival of the Fittest

Test your CrossFit Kids skills with this Workout of the Day (or WOD, as the CrossFitters say) from Coach Russella

Place bases about 16 feet apart in a traditional baseball diamond formation. Bear crawl from base to base and perform the following movements at
each one:

First base = One push-up
Second base = Two squats
Third base = Three burpees
Home base = One handstand

The goal is to get as many home runs as you can in five minutes.

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