How Busy Educators Are Fitting in Fitness

Your colleagues chimed in with easy, actionable tips for sneaking fitness into your school day.

by NEA Member Benefits

Finding the time to hit the gym can be a challenge, especially when you’re a busy educator. Your days, evenings and weekends are already crammed full. And even if you can find the time, sometimes finding the energy to exercise can feel nearly impossible.

That’s why many educators are taking a different approach. Instead of adding exercise to their agendas, they’re finding ways to fit fitness into their school day.

Take a look at these seven ways educators are fitting in fitness. Their solutions might work for you, too!

1. Make small changes

“I use little things to get more exercise in,” says Diana V. Garza, a second-grade teacher at Bonham Elementary in Harlingen, Texas. She and her students take walks during recess and do some of their lessons outside while taking a walk in their school garden.

During the school day, we “have Brain Breaks and do a little fitness workout,” Garza adds. Her solutions aren’t complicated. “We just find ways to incorporate movement throughout the day and it helps keep students motivated and focused,” Garza says.

“I have lost 55 pounds since last April and the kids have noticed and helped me along the way,” Garza says. “As a result, my students know that eating healthy and being active is not a diet. It is a lifestyle change.”

2. Be LESS efficient

NEA member Debra Spector keeps fit at school by being less efficient. “I have my desk in one corner, my file cabinet in another, my supplies in the third corner, and my coffee maker and microwave on the counter across from my desk,” says the K-6 teacher at Lake Canyon Elementary School in Galt, California. Arranging her room to be less convenient keeps her moving throughout the day. And while working on lesson plans she doesn’t sit at her desk for too long:  “I’m convinced I get about a half-mile of walking in just by planning a lesson with a cup of decaf!”

3. Ditch the desk

Baltimore third grade literacy teacher Erika Savage ditched the traditional teacher’s desk in her Holabird Academy classroom. “I have my papers on a student desk, but I don’t ever sit at it,” she says. Instead, she walks constantly to greet students and work with them at their tables. And there are no chairs. Everyone, including Savage, sits on exercise (stability) balls.

Is it working? Savage says, “I’ve seen a lot of changes in my kids just [from] sitting on the yoga [fitness] balls all day instead of chairs.”

“I am a big health enthusiast and I do different exercises with my students” every day, Savage adds. For the last six years, she has worked with BMore Fit, a nonprofit program that goes into Baltimore classrooms to train educators and help them add health and fitness routines to their day. Savage takes frequent Brain Breaks with her students, which include yoga, fitness ball exercises or cardio exercises such as jumping jacks, push-ups and high-knees. “Other times we play games that involve what we’re talking about [in class],” such as acting out vocabulary words.

4. Walk, walk, walk

Connie Perez, a recently-retired 30-year veteran kindergarten teacher at Central Elementary School in Santa Clara, New Mexico, now teaches part time and squeezes walking into her school day.

Perez stays fit by adding steps to her daily tasks. For example, when she needs to talk with the school secretary, instead of picking up the phone, she walks to the secretary’s office. She says at “the school where I teach the most, the halls are really long,” so that one modification adds a lot of walking to her day.

And all those extra steps add up. Recently Perez downloaded a pedometer app for her phone. When she checked the app to see how many steps she’d taken, she found she’d already walked over 5,000 steps that day. That meant she only needed another two miles to reach her daily goal of 10,000 steps. Being able to see how many steps she’d taken during normal activities was very motivating. “I don’t have to do a ton of stuff to be fit,” she says.

5. Join forces with a partner

Julia Ventimiglia, a teacher at Langley High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, also walks for fitness. Every morning she and her walking partner meet before school and walk for at least 30 minutes. Most days they reach their walking goal of 45 minutes. “When the weather permits, we walk outside. When the weather is not good, we walk indoors,” she says.

Ventimiglia and her walking partner use step-tracking wrist bands. “During our time together, we share ideas about teaching as well as help each other stay motivated to be as fit as possible,” she says. In the spring, they plan to walk a half marathon together for charity, another good motivator.

6. Exercise with students

NEA Member Barbara A. Baker, a special education instructional team leader at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland, might start a lesson with everyone bouncing on a ball while working on math facts or words. “I try to engage my students in many different fitness breaks throughout our lessons,” she says.

Baker and her special education instructional teammates spend more than 80 percent of the day in general education classrooms helping to facilitate, encourage and participate in “brain boosts” or movement breaks to help improve focus on school work. During lunch breaks, Baker joins other staff members who walk laps around the inside of the building or a take short walk outside.

It was hard for Baker to get motivated to work out after a back injury but she’s found “when I do small things throughout the day with my students, we both benefit.” Students increase their focus and attention while Baker slowly increases her strength and mobility, while improving her own ability to focus and get her work done.

Sometimes the hardest part is convincing herself to get up when she’s overwhelmed with paperwork or preparing lessons but “I know that I will do better at it once I get up and move.”

7. Use your school’s fitness resources

Sarah Merkle, a third-grade teacher at Spencer Technology Academy in Chicago, says her school has a walking club with pedometers purchased with a grant from Action for Healthy Kids, which provides resources for educators looking to incorporate physical activity into the school day for themselves, students and staff. They also offer annual grants to help schools implement health and wellness programs.

Another way Merkle keeps active is with a strict personal rule: Never sit when there are students in the room. The constant movement makes the time go by faster, which is especially helpful on assessment days when “it is so hard for me to just stand there and watch them take their test for the day. It’s nice to be moving. It helps keep the time going.”

Her school struggles to get educators more involved in encouraging daily movement and to be positive roles models for students. “We’re trying,” says Merkle, who was named one of Action for Healthy Kids’ Healthy School Heroes in 2015. Now, Merkle says, “we track our steps and log them on a Google Doc that we’re all on together” to help keep everyone accountable. They hold Brain Breaks competitions and raffles based on both educators’ and students’ photos and testimonials on how the Brain Breaks are helping them succeed.

Online resources are also helpful. “For the younger grades, we use a website called GoNoodle “for videos, stretches, dance-alongs and things kids can do at their seats so they’re not buzzing around the classroom creating chaos,” Merkle says. “YouTube has all sorts of fun dances that are appropriate for the classroom,” but be sure to preview the video before you show it to your class, she cautions.

Which method is best?

There’s no magical, one-size-fits-all solution that works for every educator in every situation. If one approach isn’t right for you, try another.

As Savage says, “some people might not feel comfortable doing yoga or might not feel comfortable leading breaks with their kids, but they can still be active.”