Fitness crusader: A trainer organizes a program to help Springfield students get the most out of their limited PE time

The Register Guard
By Randi Bjornstad

Worries about children “vegging” in front of the TV or squandering too much free time playing video games don’t apply to the kids in Apryl Smith’s fourth-grade class at Thurston Elementary School in Springfield.

Not on this day.

Smith’s 31 students can hardly wait for 10 a.m. and the appearance of Denise Thomas-Morrow, a fitness trainer who’s coming to give them 30 minutes of nonstop physical activity, including warm ups, exercise games and some cool-down yoga stretches.

“I like it very much,” says Jaron McGillivray, one of the boys in the class on this first Wednesday morning in November. “We get to do exercise, and I like exercise. I like games, too. I hope she will keep coming — she’s a good gym instructor.”

Thomas-Morrow, 50, who founded her Let’s Move Fitness Studio long before first lady Michelle Obama adopted the name for her child fitness effort, has the same hope for Healthy Moves, a program she’s devised to bring physical education to area classrooms where severe budget cuts have all but done away with that portion of the curriculum.

Thomas-Morrow has been busy recruiting accredited fitness trainers and other adults experienced in coaching children’s sports to volunteer their time — they receive only mileage — going to schools to teach children and their teachers how to get the most out of what PE time they have during the week.

She is also spending time fund-raising and working with grant writers, with the goal of someday being able to pay the fitness trainers to take their skills to the schools.

Since getting the program under way nearly a year ago, Healthy Moves has provided six weekly sessions for some fourth- and fifth-grade classes in the Bethel and Springfield school districts, and with Twin Oaks Elementary School in the Eugene School District.

“I chose Bethel because they never had PE teachers, and Springfield has lost most of theirs to budget cuts,” Thomas-Morrow says. “Right now, the goal is to be able to expand to schools throughout Lane County, but I’d like to develop a model that can be used nationally.”

For the moment, Smith is simply delighted to have Healthy Moves show up on her academic doorstep.

“It’s nice for teachers to have a specialist to observe — most general teachers take only one or two classes in physical education,” and the difference between PE and no PE is noticeable, Smith says. “On days they don’t have PE, the energy level is definitely heightened because they haven’t had that outlet. And they love PE; all students love to be active to do what kids need to do, which is to move and play.”

Thomas-Morrow begins her session at Thurston Elementary with some jog sprints the length of the gym. “Remember, this is not a race,” she cautions. “This is a warm up.” After the boys and girls jog to the other end, they back-pedal, sort of jogging in reverse, back to the starting point. Next they skip from one end to the other, then do it by stepping one foot out sideways and sliding the other to meet it.

Relay games come next, using jump ropes, hula hoops and thick plastic disks on wheels that Thomas-Morrow calls “scooters.”

Then it’s time to cool down. Thomas-Morrow stands in the middle with the children in a large circle around her as they do lunges, quad stretches and some yoga moves, including the v-shaped “downward dog.”

“It was fun, because we got to get up and do fun things,” says Kenna Young, who plays softball and soccer in her spare time, after the exercise session. “I like jump rope — I’m doing it faster — and I like hula hoops and scooters.”

Thomas-Morrow, one of 11 children in a military family, was born in England and grew up in Baker in Eastern Oregon. Always an athlete in school, she attended Oregon College of Education, now Western Oregon University, for two years and then transferred to the University Oregon where she earned a degree in dance.

She moved to New York City and studied at the Alvin Ailey school of dance, making her way as a performer until the aerobics industry took off in the 1980s, when she became an aerobics instructor and pioneered the “Double Funk.” She started Let’s Move in 1988 in Manhattan before returning to Eugene in 1997. She worked for 10 years in athletics at Marist High School.

She also became involved in the local Kidsports athletic programs, she says, largely because of the late Ken Morrow, her husband Randy Morrow’s father and a longtime Eugene attorney whose passion was children’s sports.

Thomas-Morrow has registered Healthy Moves as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization “so we can receive grants and donations for our ‘Trainer in Residence’ program,” she says.

“I want today’s kids to have what many of us had when we were young, when most schools had physical education classes several times a week and plenty of places to play and get exercise.”

Unfortunately, things are very different now, but it doesn’t have to be if the community supports the physical development of its children, she says.

“It’s my goal to help give kids a platform so they can become healthy and stay healthy, through exercises that combine aerobics, coordination and endurance.”

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