By: Yuliya Davis
Do you recall Adam Marshall’s post from April 29, titled “Fitness Knowledge for Everyone”? It brought to light the issue of the nutrition and fitness knowledge disparity that really struck a chord with me. In the story, Adam talked about his lifelong love of sports and movement, his positive experiences as a school athlete, and his work as a personal trainer and fitness professional. With that, Adam also described the struggles that he witnessed: teenagers and young adults (barely out of high school) seeking professional fitness and nutrition help to try to get their health back – with mixed success. Why were they in that situation? What about the Physical Education they should have received as children? And in the back of my mind, as I read Adam’s post, I realized that I could have very easily been one of those people. So I decided to tell their – and my – side of the story.
The issue of sharp division between the “haves” and “have nots” in the context of nutrition and fitness education is not new. Thankfully, this is not a heavy, in-depth discussion of the existing disparities, but rather a quick tale of how access to knowledge transformed the life of an overweight, uncoordinated, and insecure kid – me. As you read my story, I only ask that you allow yourself to be open and curious – and to ponder the why’s as they present themselves.
I was born and raised in Southeastern Siberia, Russia. That’s right: the scary place we all heard about with bitter cold winters, old prisons, bears, and… a normal Western city, not unlike many here in the United States. I went to a small school, studied all the usual subjects, and hated Physical Education (PE), which in Russian is referred to as Physical Culture (in a literal translation). I was overweight since early childhood and due to family circumstances and other factors outside my control, didn’t get much chance to engage in active play or spend a lot of time using playground equipment outside. Thus, I entered school lacking proficiency in many essential motor skills and fundamental movement patterns. Our bi-weekly PE class very quickly became sheer torture. We ran laps around the old gym – or the track around the school – and then worked on sports skills for Russian favorites such as basketball, volleyball, soccer, and lapta (a version of baseball). Being that I lacked many basic motor skills, I wasn’t successful in trying to figure out how to use an implement or become proficient with a ball. Instead, I watched the kids who were good at sports get better, while those of us who weren’t went largely unnoticed and got poor grades. Luckily, I still liked to move – especially when there was music – and my parents signed me up to attend a dance studio.
I was thrilled, but after the first few lessons, my excitement somewhat faded. It was very difficult – and embarrassing – trying to keep up with my agile peers, who were not overweight. And while I diligently worked on steps and techniques that helped me become more coordinated and comfortable with movement, my weight held me back and kept me from being able to successfully compete. It was at the end of the school year at the age of 12 that I got truly lucky – my aunt gave me a book. It was one of those oddball Reader’s Digest hardcover compilations (Reader’s Digest was just becoming popular in Siberia), and it had a Health and Fitness section. Being that we just got tested, and I, once again, was classified as significantly overweight, it was an auspicious coincidence that the Health and Fitness section caught my eye – and changed my life. Looking back, there wasn’t any extraordinary information in the book – just the basics – but the basics were enough.
I learned about energy in/energy out (it felt like a revelation!), macro and micro nutrients, calories, energy content of some of the common foods, intensity levels, and some of the ways to improve fitness through simple exercises and lifetime or daily activities. Believe it or not, I actually remember most of what I learned that summer, because it was so important and helpful to me, because it made so much sense in my life, and because I wished that I would have known it earlier. Next year, I returned to school and dance a different kid – fit, healthy, confident, and happy. I never became proficient in sports – our PE classes didn’t allow the opportunity to go back and re-build missed skills – but I went on to become a regional dance champion and a successful power lifter.
Fast-forwarding a few years into the future, I ended up moving to the United States, got married, and became a parent. I was able to help my son avoid weight issues, develop good nutritional habits, and share my love of movement and exercise. I now work to further Quality Physical Education (#QPE) alongside an amazing team of dedicated educators at Focused Fitness. We help provide kids with movement opportunities and the access to health, fitness, and nutrition awareness. We help teachers gain the knowledge and skills they need to guide their students toward a healthy, happy, and active life. Why do I do it? To make sure that no kid’s health and happiness has to depend on luck or the chance of stumbling upon the right book at the right time. My 12-year-old self would be very proud – as am I!