December 4, 2003


Teacher instructs students to be fit

In study after study, research shows that many Americans are not on a healthy path. Too much TV, too much fast food and too little exercise have contributed to an epidemic of obesity among people of all ages, including teenagers, which has led to early onset of potentially serious diseases, such as diabetes.

You could say that for the past 26 years Yellow Springs High School physical education teacher Kevin O’Brien has been waging his own campaign against these trends by sharing his passion for physical fitness.

O’Brien will receive statewide recognition for his efforts when he’s honored as the Ohio Secondary Physical Education Educator of the Year at the annual convention of the Ohio Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, in Dayton today (Thursday).

“ I’m proud to work with Mr. O’Brien,” YSHS Principal John Gudgel said at a Yellow Springs School board meeting last month. “He’s truly dedicated to our kids.”

In an interview last week, O’Brien said that he seeks to help his students find ways to incorporate physical fitness into their lives by introducing them to a wide range of aerobic and strength-building activities — from basketball to kick-boxing, from soccer to rock climbing — in hopes that the young people will find one or two pursuits that they enjoy and will continue.

“ We try to show them a whole host of things. Some they’ll get involved with and some they won’t,” he said. “Kids always ask me what’s the best fitness activity of all and I tell them, ‘it’s the one you’ll do.’ ”

In a ninth-grade phys. ed. class last week, students took part in a range of activities in just 45 minutes, warming up with walking and jogging, then working out for 20 minutes in the high school’s new fitness center, then winding down with yoga, which O’Brien taught. The mood was light and informal and students talked and joked while working their pecs, abs and biceps.

O’Brien seemed laid-back in his approach, willing to accommodate the student’s need for chitchat as long as they maintained their physical activity. He also brings in music to play in the background.

“ They can visit with each other as long as they stay on task,” he said.

Everyone wore heart monitors to keep track of their heart rates, which they dutifully recorded at the end of the class. The class goal is to elevate the heart to aerobic levels for 20 minutes several times a week, to promote heart health.

O’Brien said that he is especially excited about his work this year, because YSHS now has a new fitness center filled with strength-training equipment. The equipment was supplied by the National School Fitness Foundation, which trained O’Brien in using and teaching the strength-training components.

While physical fitness results in better health and longer lives, O’Brien also emphasizes to his students that physical fitness enhances their mental and emotional selves as well.

“ You try to show how being fit influences all parts of their lives,” he said. “It makes you stronger, helps you study better and makes you feel better about yourself.”

You don’t have to be a psychic to see that O’Brien walks his talk. Slender and muscular, O’Brien looks a good decade younger than his age, 48. When he’s not teaching, he does aerobics and strength-training at the Xenia YMCA, plays soccer several evenings a week and basketball on Sundays. Still, in the context of his family, he seems to think he’s the slacker.

“ My wife’s the runner,” he said, referring to Mills Lawn teacher Becky O’Brien. “She runs four or five miles a day.”

Kevin O’Brien received his undergraduate training in physical education at Eastern Kentucky University, then completed a master’s in exercise physiology at the University of Arizona. He came to Yellow Springs High School, his first and only teaching job, 26 years ago at the bidding of Ed McKinney, who was the superintendent at the time.

Starting out teaching middle school phys. ed., O’Brien found his niche at the high school level. Along with teaching young people, he now teaches teachers, and is one of 29 Ohio educators who give workshops around Ohio to help educators learn to teach lifetime fitness to kids.

Whether showing young people through his own example how to live a life of fitness, or teaching teachers to do the same, Kevin O’Brien will continue to do his part to help Yellow Springs young people live healthier, happier lives.

— Diane Chiddister