Physical Activity in Schools case studies and inspiring stories

All-Star: Spring 2015

staying active in PEMs. Melissa Contreras is a Physical Education Specialist at Jefferson Elementary School in Sanger, Calif. However, Ms. Contreras isn’t just any Physical Education Specialist working in schools. She strives to transition her passion for living a healthy lifestyle into her students’ way of life. Ms. Contreras teaches over 400 elementary students each year; instilling the value of being physically active and the belief that healthy food choices can be delicious.

Even though she has been teaching for nearly 15 years, Ms. Contreras is always learning along with her students. Education is continually changing and that holds true for physical education as well. Ms. Contreras enjoys creating interactive lessons based on Common Core State Standards and believes that her evolving teaching skills continually provide her students with a better education.

She takes her energy beyond the classroom by partnering with her District and School Administrators to keep an active School Wellness Council and promote healthy fundraisers such as dance-a-thons and read-a-thons. She is working on preparing for short distance runs and enjoys cooking healthy gourmet meals. Eating healthy and being physically active is fun and Ms. Contreras focuses on teaching children this from a young age.

Read Ms. Contreras’ story to learn how she inspires her students and works to create a healthier environment where her students can learn and succeed.

All-Star: Winter 2015

Doug Bettencourt Raises the Bar to Keep Fifth Grade Students On-the-Move 

Mr. Doug Bettencourt is a fifth grade teacher at A.E. Arnold Elementary School in Cypress School District, Cypress, Calif. He changed careers to become a teacher 13 years ago because he wanted the chance to positively impact the lives of  students, something he calls “a truly priceless opportunity.” Mr. Bettencourt takes a different approach to teaching, for instance he may walk across a row of students’ desks while talking, have students sit on yoga balls during instruction or lead an "exercise blast" in the middle of a lesson. He tells students “it’s ok to be different.” 

Most kids have an abundance of energy and allowing students to move during class keeps their minds ready to learn and absorb information. 

In addition to incorporating various types of physical activity into the classroom, for the past 10 years Mr. Bettencourt has conducted a lunch time soccer program that has involved thousands of kids from third to sixth grade. His goal? To get kids more active, meet new friends, learn teamwork and most importantly….have fun! Not only that, parents and relatives are invited to attend when available which has been a positive way to influence the families as a whole. Plus it provides an opportunity for students to show off their skills. As a coach, this has led to many rewards, especially upon seeing students sign up for recreational or club soccer because they have learned that being active is enjoyable and working as a team is rewarding. 

A few of Mr. Bettencourt’s frequent encouragements to students include: "Success is earned, not given,” “Always believe in yourself,” and “Never, ever, give up!” Read Mr. Bettencourt's story to learn how this along with his commitment and passion to incorporating physical activity and nutrition in the classroom has benefited his students.

Beyond the Classroom

Add in Exercise
While at Work, Home
or On-the-Go

What is a Community Health All-Star?

Community Health All-Stars are individuals or organizations that are making a difference in their communities by creating a great impact through nutrition education. Learn more

Making Physical Activity a Reality

Whether at work, home, or on-the-go there’s no reason to give up on your goal to be more physically active, especially when there are so many ways to incorporate exercise into your day.

Experts recommend adults get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity each day, but it doesn't have to be done all at once. Incorporate 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there, and before you know it, you’ll be meeting your goals without difficulty!

By adding aerobic/cardiovascular, strength/weight training, stretching/flexibility and balance while at work, home and on-the-go, you can become more physically fit without the gym. What are the benefits of each type of exercise? Read here to learn more.

Life-Long Health and Fitness

Melissa Contreras Boosts Students Scores by Encouraging Lifelong Health and Fitness

Be Better Today Than You Were Yesterday

teaching nutrition lessons as part of PEThe motto of Jefferson Elementary School in Sanger, California is “Be Better Today Than You Were Yesterday.” Physical Education Specialist Melissa Contreras brings that motto to work every day and expects her students to do the same.

Contreras has been teaching for nearly 15 years, continually improving on her message to move more and eat better.

In a testing-driven environment, physical education often gets lost in the shuffle, but a recent study shows that movement and exercise improve a student’s ability to focus on cognitive tasks and score higher on tests (1).

Contreras says she sees these kinds of results among her students every day, and she’s not the only one.

Over the past ten years, Jefferson Elementary has steadily improved its state testing scores, leading it and other Sanger Unified School District schools to be the focus of a Stanford University study on successful school reform (2).

In 2012, Jefferson was recognized by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and Contreras and other teachers flew to Arkansas to receive the silver award from former President Bill Clinton. The school was also recognized as a California Distinguished School with an additional award in Exemplary Physical Education and Nutrition.

teaching nutrition lessons as part of PE“To provide the best possible learning environment for children, a school must also provide an environment that supports healthy behaviors,” Contreras told The Sanger Scene in 2014.

The importance of living a healthy lifestyle

Contreras teaches her students the importance of movement and how to keep it fun. She also offers two nutrition classes each month, using nutrition lesson plans provided by Dairy Council of California, which are free to educators in California.

“Each student has his or her own Dairy Council booklet that makes teaching nutrition a regular part of the student’s education,” Contreras said. “This curriculum is a great foundation for teaching the basics of nutrition.”

While basic nutrition is important, Contreras wants to take her students a step further, teaching them how to use nutrition and exercise in their daily lives now, and as they grow up.

“Students need to be taught the importance of living a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “It is not enough to just tell them to ‘run’ or ‘eat healthy.’ They need to know why it is important.”

To that end, Contreras organizes field trips each year to visit the Farm and Nutrition Day event at the Fresno Fairgrounds, where students get to learn where their food comes from, and taste produce and foods grown and made locally.

teaching nutrition lessons as part of PEShe also makes sure nutrition comes up frequently in PE classes.

“My goal is to teach students the skills, but also engage them in different movement activities so they enjoy moving,” she said. “Also allowing them to taste different nutritious foods and read food labels so they know what to look for when choosing ‘healthy’ foods.”

A district-wide commitment to health

Exercise and nutrition isn't just for kids. Contreras cites her school district’s commitment to health for everyone as a motivator for her and her students.

“Sanger Unified School District has been very supportive in understanding the importance of health and wellness,” Contreras said. “It’s one of the few districts in the valley that has full-time elementary physical education specialists (of which Contreras is one). The district also supports annual events such as the Walk-to-School event and the Community Health Fair.”

So, is Contreras committed to the motto “Be Better Today Than You Were Yesterday?” You bet. But she says it’s easy when her students are right there with her.

“I love working with the kids,” she said. “Their positive energy is contagious. It makes me excited and energized to teach when they are excited to learn.”

1. Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM, et al. Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function. Pediatrics. 2014; 134(4):e1063-71.
2. David JL, Talbert JE. Turning Around a High-Poverty School District: Learning From Sanger Unified’s Success. 2012. Stanford University.

Movement in the Classroom

Doug Bettencourt Knows Bouncing Students Make Better Learners 

Yoga Balls for Better Outcomes

Walk into Doug Bettencourt’s 5th grade classroom at Arnold Elementary School in Cypress, Calif., and you may notice something strange about the students – they're bouncing.

Mr. Bettencourt places a premium on movement, and to that end, his students sit on stability balls in the classroom, allowing them to bounce, balance, wiggle and generally incorporate movement throughout the school day. 

"In the classroom, having the kids exercise and be able to be restless by sitting on yoga balls allows them to constantly be active learners," Bettencourt said. "Kids that often have trouble sitting still can move on their yoga ball, all the while improving their posture, working their calves and abdominal muscles, and strengthening their core." 

Swapping out chairs for stability balls may also have an effect on the class’s learning outcomes. Studies have found that fitter students who exercise at least 60 minutes a day had better behavior and health, allowing them to achieve more in class (1). But bursts of exercise throughout the day may be even better, improving cognitive function and keeping kids more focused on the task at hand (2). 

Bettencourt has seen improvements in his students’ ability to learn and they've made strides on math testing since he’s introduced exercise into the lesson plan. And students who may have struggled in the classroom before now find they love coming to class. 

nutrition and exercise in the classroom

"In some instances, significant behavior issues have improved simply because students can be moving whenever they want to," Bettencourt said. "Many kids actually love coming to school simply because they get to sit and bounce on their ball all day. Students in other classes constantly are asking to come so they can try sitting on a ball. Getting them excited about coming to school is a huge victory." 

But Bettencourt doesn't stop there. 

Noticeable Nutrition 

"Not only is fitness a constant in our class, but its partner nutrition is often a hot topic of discussion," Bettencourt said. "We often have very entertaining discussions about what kids are eating and how they can incorporate fruits, veggies and whole grains into their diets." Bettencourt uses Dairy Council of California free nutrition lesson plans – as a jumping off point for many discussions, and he makes sure it's prominently displayed, so kids can learn just by looking up. 

"Posters line the walls giving kids ideas for healthier food options or tips on being aware of what you drink and put into your body," he said. 

Bettencourt also brings his own fitness and health game into the classroom. "I drink veggie and fruit concoctions made in a Vitamix at home, knowing full well that the kids will ask me what’s in it. Eating salads made of kale, spinach and other veggies in front of the kids plants a seed in their minds that it’s okay to eat healthy." 

Making Exercise and Nutrition Part of Every Lesson 

So with all this exercise and nutrition in the classroom, when does Bettencourt find time for math, science and English? The answer? Exercise and nutrition are incorporated into those lessons. "One of the biggest challenges I often hear from other teachers is that they already don’t have enough time in a day to teach, let alone to add fitness," he said. "I completely understand, yet still encourage any teacher to give it a try. A teacher’s classroom is his or her domain, and it's up to them to find out what will and will not work."


1. Strong WB, Malina RM, Blimkie CJ, et al. Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth. 2005. J Pediatr. 146(6):732-7
2. Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, et al. The Effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. 2009. Neuroscience. 159(3):1044-54.