Originally published Feb. 20, 2020 in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
By Kristin Guess
Irving physical education teacher Cory Arensdorf introduced his class of fifth-graders Wednesday morning to a new twist on the old game of “tag.”
It’s called “Food Fat Attack.” The “healthy” runners run from the “fat attack taggers,” who wear jerseys adorned with names such as Candy Boy, Nacho Dude and French Fry Girl. They attempt to tag the “healthy” runners, who then have to fill their jersey with balls simulating fat cells.
“How do you get rid of the fat cells?” one student asked to the delight of Arensdorf. “Exercise!” he shouted to a room full of smiles.
The incorporation of mental and physical fitness into nearly all aspects of the daily routine has earned Irving Elementary statewide recognition as a two-time winner of the Healthiest State K-12 School Award presented by HealthPartners UnityPoint Health.
“They can’t just be physical. They have to feel good about who they are before they can learn the lessons of being healthy and taking care of themselves,” Arensdorf said.
With last year’s winnings of $5,000, the school purchased heart monitors worn like a wrist watch. They alert kids throughout the day if they have an increased heart rate. Unless they’re in gym class, they go through the steps they’ve learned to calm down, including breathing exercises and mindfulness practices.
“It’s something that could be revolutionary with kids who have anxiety,” said Irving Principal Frederick “Zach” Zimmerman.
Coupled with games such as Saturated Fat Ball, Heartline Dribble and Nutrition Hockey, Arensdorf keeps students focused on fitness.
“He doesn’t just make games for fun. He makes them about learning and having fun,” fifth-grader Jakiyah Porter said.
Nutrition and exercise themes can be seen throughout the school. There are water bottle filling stations, an urban garden, and fruits and vegetables instead of sugary snacks, with help from Food Corps and the Black Hawk Health Department. Last year the school launched its first Color Run 5K.
“We are looking to inspire,” Zimmerman said. “Being in a low-income area, if we can do it anyone can.”
Wellness initiatives are coordinated by Arensdorf, Zimmerman and Kristin Meany-Walen, mental health coordinator at Irving. All K-5 teachers incorporate lessons on social-emotional learning, nutritional health, physical health and sleep as part of a program adopted by all Waterloo Schools.
“We’re looking at kids individually, giving them what they need,” Zimmerman said, including food and water for those who live in poverty. “Just basic needs a lot of our kids don’t have. … It’s sad, but it’s a reality so you have to address it.”
To encourage even more exercise, Arensdorf introduced the morning Run Club. Students wear a scannable badge to track their laps around an outdoor track with a smartphone app. The morning Exercise Club keeps track of exercise indoors during the winter.
Anywhere from 50 to 200 students show up before school to add laps, which are displayed on the wall in the gymnasium.
The school has about 460 students enrolled, and about 390 of them have scanned into one of the exercise clubs this year, Arensdorf said.
“Overall, the social well being of students has dramatically increased,” Zimmerman said.
Irving was selected for the awards from among individuals, communities, K-12 schools, early care providers, out-of-school programs and workplaces across Iowa.
“We are proud to recognize Irving Elementary School — again — with this award,” said Jami Haberl, executive director of the Healthiest State Initiative. “The way that Irving incorporates health and wellness education into the classroom and beyond is truly innovative and inspiring.”
According to the 2017 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Iowa is No. 21 in the nation when it comes to being physically, emotionally and mentally healthy.
The Healthiest State Initiative is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization driven by the goal to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation. The Healthiest State Annual Awards are sponsored by Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Hy-Vee, Nemours and HealthPartners UnityPoint Health.