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[PHOTO] Stepping Up: Summer 2008

When education gets physical

Jennifer Anderson is teaching middle schoolers how to live a healthier lifestyle.

Her "office" is a converted garage area near the parking lot behind Thomas A. Howe Academy in downtown Indianapolis. Itís a space filled with weights, treadmills, stationary bikes — equipment needed for physical fitness training — and with one more thing: dreams.

And for Jennifer Anderson and the Fit for Life program that she directs, itís home.

Fit for Life is a four-year-old program, launched by IUPUI in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), that aims to tackle the problems of obesity and low levels of physical activity through an after-school program of focused education and training.

Anderson majored in exercise science in earning her bachelor's degree in 2003, adding a master's in 2005, both from the IU School of Physical Education and Tourism Management (PETM) at IUPUI. Both degrees have proved handy in her role as the face of a program that might just shape the future health habits of a generation of IPS high school and middle school students from Howe Academy, George Washington Community and Northwest, the first three IPS schools to offer facilities — and students — to launch the fitness program.

It's a career path she loves, but it wasn't her first choice.

Focus shifted

"Originally, I wanted to get into physical therapy" in the IU School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Anderson says.

Things changed, though, when she met NiCole Keith, then a new faculty member in the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management.

"She was new to IUPUI and looking to establish a community-based program, and it sounded interesting to me," says Anderson. "After talking with her, I decided to go to graduate school and get involved in the program, which became Fit for Life."

Fit for Life has several goals, Anderson says. First is education, to teach people how to live a healthy lifestyle. Second is a place to work out, to try different programs to see which fits them and produces the results each person wishes. At the same time, Anderson and others in the program want Fit for Life to be fun, too.

"Anytime you get people to have a good time, that's a big benefit," she says. "They realize there is more to exercising than what can look like hard work — there can be a payoff at the end."

Program changed

Early planning targeted adult fitness, but organizers quickly realized it would be difficult to find outside funding.

Shifting the focus to children from kindergarten through eighth grade "didn't work either," Anderson says.

But when Fit for Life began working in high school and middle school settings, things clicked.

"Partly, it's because of the concern over childhood obesity," Anderson adds. "Parents worry about the long-term health of their children, and without the support from parents and neighbors — from the community, really — no program will work."

When Fit for Life offered eventual access for community residents to the facilities and workout programs, the response became even more positive.

Students exercise in Fit for Life program at Howe Academy

"A lot of people can't afford the cost of a private gym," she says. "That's why Fit for Life is so great — a lot of people who wouldn't be able to work out now have a place to get that kind of training and health information."

People get into fitness for a variety of reasons, Anderson says — weight loss, strength, to train for a specific event or sport, a doctor's orders, or simply because of their body image. The key, she adds, is getting started.

"Once they find out they can do this, it's great," she says. "It's a great stress reliever — people start for a lot of reasons, but they keep doing it because they learn to love it!" People train differently: some prefer solitary workouts; others like the social aspects of group workouts.

"That's part of what a good fitness instructor does," Anderson says. "You have to find out what an individual likes, and how they'll best do the work. You have to make sure a person's needs are met. You have to know the person. It's all about effort — if they don't work at it, they won't reach their goals."

Personal growth

Being a part of Fit for Life has meant changes for the Granger, Ind., native, as well.

"Fit for Life has really helped me grow as a person," Anderson says. "It's been a challenge to set up and it's a lot of work, but it's really forced me to become more open and more forceful, to test myself."

"I think I'm more patient than most people would be," Anderson adds. "I have managed to find something I'm passionate about!" T hat passion is clear — Anderson's eyes light up and her hands come alive as she talks about Fit for Life — and comes from the program's unique nature.

"Nobody has ever done a program quite like this," she says. "We're constantly making changes to make it better. It's different every semester, and I enjoy talking to the IUPUI students who are entering the program. They're starting an incredible experience."

Keith has noticed the changes in Anderson through the life of the program.

"Although she was an excellent student, she never said a word — she was very shy," says the faculty member. Much to Keith's surprise, Anderson showed up in Keith's office near the end of a semester, asking if the professor "knew of any programs that served the community to improve fitness. Months later, Jennifer and I sent the first group of (IUPUI) students to perform service learning activities at Cold Spring Elementary School. That was the beginning of Fit for Life."

The development of the program pleases Keith, but "not nearly as much as Jennifer's transformation. She has gone from a quiet, intelligent student to an individual capable of directing a program that promotes community health and fitness, and gives IUPUI students the opportunity to gain experience while meeting a tremendous community need."

For Anderson, it's those opportunities for IUPUI physical education students that make Fit for Life an exceptional internship opportunity.

"This is real-world experience," she says.

"In class, you practice on your classmates who know all the techniques you're using. But in Fit for Life, you have a chance to make a real difference in people's lives, to help shape their future."

A big part of a trainer's job is "myth-busting," she laughs. "You won't believe some of the things people think about physical fitness. They read something in a fitness magazine or online, and think it's all true!"

Partnerships key

Fit for Life is built on partnerships: ties between IUPUI and IPS, links between PTEM and the Schools of Nursing and Medicine, plus IUPUI's renowned Center for Service & Learning. And all those partnerships are vital, Anderson contends.

"Without Nursing faculty, we wouldn't have even gotten started," she says. "We wouldn't have our community participants without help from Medicine. We couldn't continue if it wasn't for Service & Learning and the staff it helps fund. And we work closely with Wesco, a near Westside community organization. Through Wesco, we're able to apply for funding to places that don't ordinarily fund public institutions, plus they help us recruit participants. Partnerships are what we are; without them, we couldn't exist."

Despite the burgeoning relationships, the future of Fit for Life isn't carved in stone. Part of the allure for IPS is that the district doesn't have to part with its limited dollars, instead providing in-kind services (workout areas and equipment, personnel and students). But the PTEM is hesitant to guarantee longterm support without a similar commitment from the school system.

"Everyone realizes the value Fit for Life has," sighs Anderson. "We're really just starting, and we can see how the kids respond. But neither IPS nor the PTE M has a lot of money to spare, either. That's why a big part of my job is to try to find other partners who see the value, who are willing to help us develop healthy habits in our children."

Spreading the word has become part of Anderson's mission, but it isn't easy.

"A lot of people who might have resources to help us don't know what we're doing," she says. "I'm only one person, and I can only talk to so many people."

Despite the concerns, she believes the value of Fit for Life will draw the community support it deserves and needs to thrive. "Indianapolis is a city that has really begun to focus on healthy living," she says. "That's one of the things I love so much about it — it has so many parks and other places to be active. All the playgrounds and trails make it a great place to have a healthy life! We just want to do our part."