PRINCETON, N.J. – United Way of Northern New Jersey and Atlantic Health System brought together top physical education, pediatric obesity and social media experts last week to raise awareness that students’ physical fitness and academic performance are interconnected.
The third in a year-long conference series called Healthy Schools, Healthy Students saw teachers, school nurses, food service directors, state officials and teacher education professors sharing best practices for integrating physical fitness and healthy nutrition into the school day.
“Research shows that students who get regular physical activity do better in school,” said Liz Warner, associate director for Education at United Way of Northern New Jersey. “Providing opportunities for students to stay active and access healthy foods is critical to maintaining a healthy school climate – the linchpin for student success.”
The conference, held at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was anchored by two Atlantic Health System doctors with different approaches to addressing similar themes. Dr. Melissa Woo, an attending pediatric endocrinologist and medical director of the KIDFIT program at Goryeb Children’s Hospital, shared the causes and prevalence of childhood obesity and prevention strategies. Internet sensation Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, known as “Doctor Mike” to his three million social media followers, is a third year family medicine resident at Overlook Medical Center who spoke about getting kids excited about fitness through social media.
“Don’t be afraid of social media and new concepts,” Dr. Varshavski said. “It can be used as a line of communication with kids -- we can use it to educate kids on the benefits of being physically fit.”
Dr. Varshavski, who gained national media attention when he was labeled “hottest doctor on Instagram,” said he decided to use the nickname to do good. He told the educators that they can use social media to their advantage, delivering important and meaningful messages to kids in light-hearted ways.
He showed one of his playful videos about how to get a “summer body” where he runs down 10 tips. Tip # 1 is getting sleep. “Sleep is where your muscles recover, your metabolism re-energizes and your mind refreshes,” he says in the video, where he flubs a line because he got zero sleep after a 24 hour call shift.
“We have to use social media to promote what we offer to our students, that’s where we can reach them,” said Peter Bratton, food service director for Toms River Regional School District.
Bratton said he’s learned through his own experiences that Dr. Varshavski is right. Bratton said students in his district didn’t know they already offered food items, like smoothies, that they were already offering. He said he saw the value in getting his information onto the media platforms that students use to communicate.
Overall, Bratton said he was impressed with all the speakers and applauded the organizers for bringing everyone from the different disciplines together.
“This was a fantastic opportunity for many organizations to get together, learn from one another and try to improve what we’re doing,” Bratton said.
In addition to the two doctors, conference attendees heard from a range of specialists from the College of New Jersey; College of Saint Elizabeth; New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; New Jersey School Nurses Association; New Jersey YMCA State Alliance; Special Olympics and the state departments of Health and Agriculture.
“It was a terrific format,” agreed Janet Hawk, executive director of the New Jersey School Nutrition Association. “We all have the same goal to keep students as healthy as possible so they can perform better. That requires everyone working together and this conference solidified that.”
The conference series has been the result of a United Way-led coalition that brings together a broad spectrum of education, government, nonprofit and health organizations, all focused on advancing the importance of developing healthy school climates.