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Good News Fridays: HEAL Fights Childhood Obesity Through Nutrition, Education

Welcome to Good News Fridays. Each week, this post features something good, wholesome, positive, and overall something great. We all need something good to read or watch on Fridays!

Post by Mitchell Kilpatrick from Alabama NewsCenter

Christy Swaid never expected to go from world champion jet ski racer to a leading advocate for children’s health in Alabama, but she has approached both roles with the excitement and passion one can expect from a world-class athlete.

HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living), founded by Swaid, works throughout Alabama to improve children’s health and transform health culture through education and practice of healthy lifestyle behaviors. The organization uses science-based methods developed by medical and educational experts, as well as her own experiences in extreme sports.

Christy Swaid displays memorabilia from her days as a six-time world champion jet ski racer. (Wynter Byrd / Alabama NewsCenter)

On the road to becoming a six-time world champion jet ski racer, Swaid saw her fair share of setbacks, including broken bones and other injuries. It was during her physical rehabilitation of multiple injuries due to overtraining, followed by a rigorous effort to achieve peak anaerobic and strength performance, that she experienced the healing power of heart rate fitness conditioning. She learned how simple, healthy decisions can make a huge impact in physical well-being. Thanks to a prominent sports performance facility in California, she was able to heal from her injuries and reach a peak physical condition.

The evidence-based practices she learned during some of the most difficult periods of her career laid the foundation of what would become HEAL.

“It’s through setbacks that we find our new discoveries,” Swaid said. “What seems like a horrible development can be a really great gift.”

That gift fueled her career, propelling her to more championships, endorsements and advocacy for water safety and healthy living.

Upon retiring from competitive racing after getting married, Swaid quickly began searching for a new passion to complement her new life.

She saw that many children in Alabama, especially those younger than 10, were already being set up for early disease and other health issues because of poor eating habits and limited exercise or effective movement.

Her own childhood experiences, combined with the lessons she learned from her racing career and her desire to have children of her own, culminated in a passion to help fix this problem.

She quickly formed a top advisory committee and connected with leading medical experts through her husband, renowned Alabama neurosurgeon Dr. Swaid Swaid, educators and state leaders to find the best way to implement her plan. Jack Farr, at the time the superintendent of Hoover City Schools, was the first major supporter of the program and gave Swaid full authority to test the program in his school system.

HEAL began in elementary school physical education classes, teaching students about healthy eating and active living through its two core pillars of physical wellbeing and healthy lifestyle education. The program supports a positive view of physical activity and nutrition and avoids behaviors that cause students to hate physical activity and healthy food. HEAL provides heart rate monitor technology so students are rewarded for exercising in their comfort zone. This technology encourages them to try new things and learn what they can do within their abilities.

“We emphasize getting in your ‘zone,’” Swaid said. “Kids who are not fit are not asked to run a mile; they can briskly walk and effectively be in their zone. This supports the overall goal of preventing diseases, accelerating academic performance and supporting workforce readiness. An athlete may have to jog to get in their zone. The zone presents an even playing field. Anyone of any fitness level can be successful. We encourage safe, fun and effective ways to embrace healthy behavior for all fitness levels.”

HEAL now works in more than 175 K-12 schools across Alabama, and 98% of schools that begin HEAL classes stay with the program long term. And the organization continues to grow. It’s beginning to test the program in other states, partnering with Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, as well as expanding college programs at Faulkner University and Jefferson State Community College in Alabama. A team of missionaries has even taken HEAL programs to students in Rwanda and Kenya.

HEAL has also expanded outside the classroom with the “HEAL at Home” program, which provides structure and support within the household as a well as a comprehensive after-school care program.

“We had students telling us that their parents and grandparents were getting healthier by playing outside with them and cooking healthier food,” Swaid said. “Through the kids, we are measurably changing entire households.”

Education is one of the core pillars of HEAL, and Swaid and her team have developed materials and authored books to help students grow more confident in reading and reach grade-level competency. HEAL’s first book, “The Ultimate Treasure Hunt,” targets students in third through fifth grades, while the latest book, “ABCs the HEAL Way,” targets kindergarten through third grade.

“Research has shown that healthier students are better readers, and we need students performing at grade-level reading,” Swaid said. “Hitting that third-grade reading level is a crucial step in minimizing risk of students not graduating.”

“ABCs the HEAL Way” launched May 4 at the third annual statewide “HEAL Day” declared by Gov. Kay Ivey, a celebration of HEAL and a time to encourage students and adults across the state to embrace healthy behaviors. The event also premiered a new HEAL song performed by “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks, a platinum-selling Alabama singer-songwriter.

More than 32,000 students across the state participated in this year’s HEAL Day, Swaid said. Already, 6,200 orders have been placed for “ABCs the HEAL Way.”

Ivey has participated in all three HEAL Days, and at the governor’s request, Swaid serves on the Grade Level Reading Executive Committee and the STEM Executive Committee to connect healthy lifestyles to academic success and workforce readiness.

Recently, HEAL has added a third pillar to its mission: financial fitness. Swaid said that when people struggle financially, their physical and mental health are harmed. HEAL has partnered with Regions Bank to promote financial fitness and a workforce readiness program.

Alabama’s business community, from Regions to companies like Alabama Power and BlueCross BlueShield, has supported and partnered with HEAL over the years to promote its programs.

During the pandemic, HEAL quickly adapted and maintained its presence in schools, using virtual technology and other innovative approaches.

“Abandoning and withdrawing was the last thing everyone needed,” Swaid said. “We persevered to stay engaged and keep our teachers connected and motivated.”

HEAL put pre-recorded lectures and lessons on thumb drives and distributed them to teachers to use as class material. That way, teachers could put on HEAL lectures to engage students while they were able to focus on smaller groups or take care of other duties simultaneously.

Other HEAL materials went completely digital and were accessible to all schools through the Alabama State Department of Education.

HEAL also provided cleaning supplies to teachers so they could clean equipment to keep themselves and their students safe once schools began opening.

“We’re all redefining ourselves, and how our normal will be later is yet to be seen,” Swaid said. “We just go day to day and do what’s most important.”

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