Sarah Habib doesn’t have small ideas. After six years of 90-hour workweeks for a San Francisco tech company, she tried to unwind all that corporate stress by coaching a girls’ elementary school basketball team. But after almost no time, she realized how out of shape her players were. None of them could run up and down the court. She even caught a few eating Skittles and ice cream before practice. “I was super confused as to why such little kids were having these problems and making these choices,” Habib says. “So I designed a program for them.”
The fitness plan she created for her players quickly grew into a much larger concept. Habib established a nonprofit called Mission2Move, which uses movement, meditation, and nutrition to combat childhood obesity and improve academic performance. She immediately incorporated its programming into classrooms just across the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Rafael City Schools district, serving roughly 250 elementary students for a full academic year and yielding positive reviews from the teachers involved.
That was two and a half years ago. Today, both Habib and Mission2Move have transplanted back to her hometown of Cincinnati, a city where one in three children are obese, compared to the one-in-five national average. Christopher Kist, an exercise physiologist with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, says the need for more physical education in the region is dire. Its Center for Better Health and Nutrition has seen nearly 3,000 visits from 1,200 to 1,500 children each year since 2015. “Physical education is the first subject to be cut in most schools,” Kist says. “We don’t have well-educated and well-staffed P.E. teachers. Kids either don’t participate, or it’s less frequent.”
At Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), some students don’t attend P.E. class every week. With Mission2Move, Habib plans to train academic teachers how to integrate small levels of movement into their classes through a program called Z-Health, a neurological approach to fitness that’s gaining traction throughout the western U.S.
The idea, Habib says, is to engage muscles that are typically underdeveloped in sedentary children and ultimately increase their mental focus. Brain pathways that remain inactive eventually become fuzzy, like a map that slowly dissolves into a blur. “If we have kids sitting for eight hours a day, then their brains actually forget how their bodies move,” she says. The movements aim to strengthen those muscle-to-brain pathways. It’s a simple equation if you think about it: Small bits of physical activity lead to improved physical wellness, and those reignited pathways improve focus, which boosts learning.
Habib’s early work with six Cincinnati afterschool programs this past academic year only further illustrated the need for her programming in CPS: children as young as first graders didn’t know how to skip, jump, or move their bodies backwards. She’s begun to describe this excessive inactivity as a movement gap, where inactive children are disadvantaged from success with focus or sports and are therefore more likely to develop childhood obesity.
Rondale Dixon, a Mission2Move affiliate and gym teacher at John P. Parker School, saw similar results when he first taught children Z-Health motions at the Boys and Girls Club in the West End. “That’s one of the reasons this program is key: It teaches kids earlier the movements [they] need,” he says, describing how simple movements like arm and hip circles assist kids in performing basic tasks like jumping rope and hula-hooping, which Dixon cherished when he was a child. “But we were outside, we were playing [back then]. Now you’re seeing kids in the video game era not going out and creating their own games and activities.”
Never one to waste time, Habib trained all 60 of CPS’s physical educators as well as the academic teachers at Roberts Academy in the Z-Health curriculum last May. She says the goal now is to start younger. She received a $25,000 grant from the philanthropic AdvoCare Foundation to teach her Z-Health curriculum at Rising Stars Academy in one kindergarten, one first grade, and 10 preschool classes of about 20 students each who have never before received physical education. That’s all in addition to setting up preschool programs at John P. Parker, Woodford Paideia, and Winton Hills Academy, along with an opportunity on September 17 to teach Z-Health to all 120 CPS preschool teachers.
Habib certainly doesn’t have small ideas. Just small students.