|Photo credit: Daniel Erath, The Times-Picayune|
A cultural shift must have occurred when teenagers greet a health guru as they would a rock star. But that’s exactly what happened last week when the nationally syndicated talk show host, Dr. Mehmet Oz, M.D., arrived at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School.
Students from Sci High and McDonough 35 High School were hyped up to meet the heart surgeon and his wife Lisa, founders of HealthCorps, a proactive health movement started in 2004 to fight obesity and build mental resilience in American youth. The curriculum, which includes education in nutrition, fitness, self-esteem and stress management, will be taught at two local schools. Fifty-four high schools in 13 states have already adopted HealthCorps in a nationwide campaign to encourage healthy lifestyles among young adults.
On the steps of Sci High, McDonough’s gospel choir delivered a rousing rendition of “I Am Healed” as Oz enthusiastically clapped in rhythm. The Sci High karate club performed a martial arts demonstration, setting the stage for the day’s health and fitness agenda.
“[The students] feel very fortunate to have this national program and they feel special,” Sci High Principal Barbara MacPhee said.
Addressing an assembly of students, faculty, legislators and school board administrators, Oz described the nexus of his health program.
“Ten years ago I was called to D.C. to see what could be done about childhood obesity,” Oz recalled. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson reached out to Oz to provide assistance in stemming the tide of childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
“We have re-envisioned what health looks like in America,” said Oz who holds that nutritious, whole foods and regular exercise are antidotes to chronic illness.
Fifty percent of Louisiana residents are now overweight and New Orleans ranks fifth in obesity nationwide, he told the students.
This high school was chosen because it is representative of the city, MacPhee explained. Among the student body are youngsters who are diabetic, pre-diabetic, hypertensive and dangerously overweight, she said. But those health issues can be found at almost any school in the city, she added. Many students eat neither breakfast nor lunch.
The premise of HealthCorps is that healthy lifestyles – supported through peer mentoring – can empower teens to be able to “go from point A to point B,” helping them to accomplish what they hope for in life. They can be catalysts for societal change.
“If (kids) can’t control things inside their bodies, how can they control anything else?” Oz challenged the audience.
Through HealthCorps’ instruction, students learn that their minds and bodies are integrally connected. In addition to nutrition, they develop techniques for reducing stress; managing time; communicating effectively and controlling anger.
Students will practice yoga, meditation, take field trips to farms and hospitals and experience nature.
“When we try to get kids to eat healthy, we need to make it cool to eat healthy,” Oz said.
Evamor Natural Alkaline Water, a Covington company, recently signed on as HealthCorps’ national sponsor. It will supply high schools with pure, artesian water, drawn from a protected, north shore aquifir, a half-mile underground.
“Seventy-six percent of our kids are dehydrated and that’s why the gift of Evamor is so important,” MacPhee said.
Evamor bottles one of the few domestically produced, naturally alkaline artesian water that tastes good, said Bo Reily, the company’s founder and chief executive officer. Kids who are accustomed to drinking soft drinks and flavored sports drinks need time to change habits and choose water.
“There is a movement to fight acidity in the American diet,” Reily said. Acidity results from eating too much sugar, processed foods and sodas. High acidity can weaken body systems and promote disease. Many alternative healthcare professionals argue that a pH balanced diet is a vital key to health maintenance.
“Soda is the worst thing you can ever drink,” agreed Dr. Corey Hebert, a professor at Tulane Medical School who attended the event. “When I give that information to children, they’re amazed.”
HealthCorps coordinators – normally recent college graduates – work inside the schools to help teens, their teachers and families become health activists. Early in the program, students prepare an audit of the refrigerators in their homes: Where’s the fiber in this? Where’s the 100 percent whole grain?
“If you wake up in the morning and eat Hot Fries, you’re not going to be energized,” said Jared Wheeler, 17, a McDonogh student who’s excited about starting the program.
HealthCorps aims to have a presence in 100 schools in all 50 states by 2015.
“The teenagers of today are the leaders of tomorrow,” Oz said.