A six-time world champion athlete and former stuntwoman has figured out a way to fight Alabama’s childhood obesity epidemic, and its sweeping across the state.
HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) is a Birmingham-based organization that is revolutionizing physical education curriculum in elementary schools. HEAL converts physical education class time into more of a personal training experience for students.
Christy Swaid founded HEAL in 2002. Swaid is a six-time professional watercraft racing champion and a former stuntwoman for television and film. She married world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Swaid N. Swaid and moved to Birmingham. She and Dr. Swaid have two sons together.
“HEAL is a spin-off of trying to be good at being a mother, which is the toughest extreme sport I think I’ve ever engaged in and the most fun,” she told AL.com.
After a few years of testing and organization, HEAL was started as a pilot program in 10 elementary schools. From that pilot program, 75% of students improved their fitness and 100% of students were eating healthier foods.
HEAL now operates in over 95 schools in Alabama and serves over 17,500 students and their families. The program is meant to be more enjoyable for students and the curriculum lays a foundation for healthy living. Physical Education teachers are trained on how to teach the curriculum, and it also works with families to offer tips for exercising and preparing healthy meals at home.
Since its founding, HEAL has been endorsed by the Alabama State Department of Education and the Alabama Department of Public Health. The HEAL program helps schools fulfill federal wellness requirements, including health education, physical education, nutrition services, health promotion for staff, and family/community involvement.
Molly Killman, Director of Nutrition and Physical Activity Division for the Alabama Department of Public Health said, “HEAL is a valuable tool for schools in Alabama that helps all students to enjoy physical activity, learn healthy food habits, and gain self confidence.”
HEAL has just reached another milestone. Walker County has dedicated itself to implementing HEAL in every elementary school in the county. Walker County has one of the highest rates of obesity in the state. Glenda Wilson, School Safety and Technology Coordinator for the Walker County Board of Education was the impetus behind this decision.
“HEAL seemed to be the ultimate vehicle to accomplish making our county aware of how to become healthier individuals,” she said. “What a better way than to start with our students! This program not only teaches students about nutrition and physical activity but also allows children to practice what they learn on a regular basis.”
With the help of the Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress (PEP grant), Walker County was a warded a $55,000 grant to spread HEAL to more schools. Today all Walker County and Jasper City elementary schools use the HEAL program.
Wilson said the first step in bringing HEAL to all of Walker County was making sure the superintendent was on board. After that, Wilson found teachers she knew would be excited and passionate about the program. Their enthusiasm helped make others interested and bring the program to each school.
Mrs. Swaid and HEAL continue to strive for the health of Alabama’s children. HEAL is still looking to expand to more elementary schools and to grow the program to also include middle and high schools.