How can we improve health and fitness education in low income communities?

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It’s no surprise that people who live in higher socioeconomic neighborhoods have better health and less obesity.  People may recognize that they need to become healthier but run into a systemic problem that keeps them from doing so.  These include inadequate transportation, limited availability of healthy food choices, and inadequate places to play and exercise.  However, many people don’t know where to start when it comes to health, or they don’t realize their current habits aren’t healthy.  This lack of knowledge traces back to early education.  Physical education in schools is a great way of forming healthy habits.  Health classes teach students how to form a balanced diet.  My research shows the difference between public and private school health and fitness education I will then give macro and micro responses that would improve the situation.  

This is the CDC diagram showing social determinants of health. I will be focusing on education quality and access, but all of these issues are extremely interlocked.

“We can all agree that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, all children should have the basic nutrition they need to learn and grow and to pursue their dreams, because, in the end, nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children.”

Michelle Obama

When I was looking into responses and organizations that resonated with me, I came across Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.  She really hit the nail on the head with this topic and I highly recommend looking into it.  The program aims to reduce child obesity and encourage lifelong healthy habits.  That is really my aim for this project, and I want to credit Obama as much as I can.  Please read more about it here.


Public schools in NYC are divided into 32 districts and they include over 1,500 schools.  Any child living in NYC is entitles to free education.  The child is assigned to a school in their district, which is determined by home address.  These schools are publicly funded but unfortunately, the quality does vary based on neighborhood and district.  Private schools are privately owned, and everyone who attends pays for it themselves.  Below is a comparison of physical and health education at private and public schools. Some of this information is from school websites, but most of it is from interviews I did with my peers at various schools in NYC.  

Private School

  • Often many facilities and resources (fields, pool, tracks)
  • Students can choose what sport they want to do for PE, including dance or team sports
  • Centered around going outside and playing
  • Interdisciplinary PE, mixed with other classes
  • Health class focused on mental health, substance use, and nutrition
  • Instilled healthy habits

Public School

  • A gym and a small weight room is typical
  • “Free play”, where students can do what they want. Many students just walk around.
  • Based around credits and grades
  • Schools researched in lower income neighborhoods tend to have a less physical activity in PE
  • Heath class focused on basic diet, sex ed, mental health
  • Doesn’t seem to set healthy habits
  • Students are annoyed by the class requirements

“I would have good info about exercise and health if my school was the only education I had.”

Private School Student

“Everything taught is ignored.”

Public School Student

So what is the problem?

Many public schools don’t have health and fitness education programs that provide students with the information they need to exercise and eat well.  This disproportionally affects low income communities and people who only can afford public school, contributing to the cycle of bad habits and bad health.

My dream response: Big picture

Improve public school physical education and health classes.
  • Give the physical education classes more variety and structure
  • More funding for the school would allow for more PE teachers to be employed, thus allowing students to choose a sport for their PE.  This will cultivate more interest and engagement.
  • Keep health class requirements small enough that students don’t get annoyed about having to do them. 
  • Teach about nutrition and diet in health classes (helpful images below).  Sex ed and mental health are super important, but more focus should be given to how to have a balanced diet and exercise.
Non-profit organizations should work to educate adults in low income communities
  • Workplaces should bring in people to teach about diet and exercise.  The lessons should be about how to simply and affordably become healthier.  They should teach people how to read nutrition labels and what “healthy” really means.
  • Farmer’s markets and healthier grocery stores should build in low income communities.  Having healthier options nearby will greatly increase the wellbeing of the neighborhood.

Health class guides and infographics

This is similar to MyPlate, but the food pyramid shows more specific foods within each group. (Harvard Public Health School)
Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate is a great visual for kids to see what their plate should look like. It’s a good place to start, but should be supplemented with the other two infographics. (Harvard Public Health School)
This is a poster that shows what different nutrients are. This is really helpful because these are high frequency words that kids should know.

What can be done now?

What YOU can do
  • Support local farmers markets.  Not only does this help the farmer, but it helps bring organic food to city populations.
  • Educate people about high school completion programs as well as health in general. 
  • Recommend inclusive gyms with flexible rates.
  • Educate yourself on less talked about topics, like this.  Just look around your neighborhood and notice what is and isn’t available
Support organizations 
  • You can donate your time and money to food banks in your community.
  • There are gyms like Healthworks Community Fitness Center that are trying to make exercise more available to everyone, no matter income.  They set their rates based on income, not a fixed rate. These organizations, however, are only located in certain communities. 

PE guides and infographics

Precision Nutrition’s body types are a good way to teach kids about exercise and a normal baseline. This would be a great graphic to show kids in PE. (precision nutrition)

Also, telling students about the benefits of exercise will teach them about why they are doing it in the first place. This mentality of knowing the purpose of exercise will help build long term habits. (source unknown)

Simply adding a variety of sports to PE classes will engage students. It will also stop classes from getting repetitive and prevent students from becoming bored. (Source unknown)
Going through comprehensive guides like this will give more structure and reason to PE classes. This chart shows the benefits of working out and the science behind it. (Sources are at the bottom of the graphic)

Local resources

I wanted to compile a list of resources that are specific to my neighborhood.  I live in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, which borders central Harlem.  You might be able to find some resources for your neighborhood here.  Additionally, this interactive site will set you up with concrete ways to fight hunger in your neighborhood. 

Food stores

  • Watkins Health Food
  • Seven Grains Health Food
  • Food For Health
  • Vida Saludable 
  • Integrity Health Products
  • Whole Foods
  • NAAR

Places to exercise

  • Planet Fitness
  • Benswic Inc.
  • Blink Fitness
  • Riverside Park
  • Morningside Park
  • Central Park
  • Let’s Move (exercise guides and instruction)

Local Organizations/Food Distribution Centers

  • The Nutrition Education Resources Project
  • Broadway Community Lunch Project
  • West Harlem Action Network
  • Columbia Green Market Farmer’s Market

What will you do next?

I would love you to either fill out this form or comment an action step you will take to help combat unhealthiness due to lack of education.

Works cited

Click here to see a full list of the sources I used



  1. Hi Violet, I learned so much from your page! I have been thinking about this a lot myself, I recently quit ice skating (due to COVID-19) and I have found that it is hard to find information about good nutrition and home workouts/pro-active exorcise regimens to do on my own.(especial during this past year of COVID-19)

    I think that implementing quality nutrition and physical education programs is really imperative to a healthy lifestyle, I think that I can help combat unhealthiness by reaching out to friends and seeing if they want to do yoga or walk around the park by my neighborhood/go swimming or just dance around.

    I have two questions for you:
    1. I really liked how you talked about the importance of the food pyramid, I also know that many American’s don’t trust advice about nutrition administered by the government/ ie public school programs about nutrition. My question is how can schools gain that trust back?

    My other question is how do you see these programs being improved on or implemented during covid and virtual school? What are ways that PE can be made more accessible during this really different time of schooling?

    I am really impressed by all your research! Good job,

    1. Hi Sumeya,
      Thank you so much for visiting my page and commenting! I also used to figure skate so that’s really cool haha. As for your questions, I think schools can make sure students are gaining information even without “gaining back trust”. I think that if schools and teachers continue to implement the tools that I mentioned, it will be so repeated that students will absorb it one way or another. While that’s not necessarily the most pleasant way to do it, I think it’s the most practical. Also, more people just need the bare minimum with health education. They don’t have to love it or find it to be a passion, they simply have to know it so they can make healthy choices. About PE during covid, I think instead of just giving a bunch of workouts that people will avoid, PE teachers should implement some teaching into the lessons. This could be infographics, like I showed above, or more instruction about how to build an exercise routine. Again, thanks for commenting!

  2. Violet,
    You did a great job presenting lots of valid information and really bringing up the inequity in our schools. Thank you for your thorough research and your passion.

  3. Hi Violet!
    This is such an interesting topic and you did an amazing job explaining it in addition to providing steps on how we can help. I definitely didn’t know much about this topic and the systemic roots but I do know about food deserts which I think also contributes to this issue. Overall your project is amazing and detailed and I definitely learned a lot! The only issue is I unfortunately can’t access your Google Form, I just think you need to change the sharing settings. Thank you for dedicating your project to such an important issue and informing many others (including myself)!

    1. Hi Emma. I’m so glad you liked the project and thank you for letting me know about the google form. It should be fixed!

  4. Hey Violet,
    This is an amazing page! I love the media and photos used, they really added to the presentation of this topic. I thought the information was very organized and well thought out, great job!! I had very limited knowledge about this topic, so I really enjoyed reading and learning more about this!! I also appreciated that you included local resources in the bottom of your page. It makes me actually want to do something about it. Amazing work!

    1. Hi Isabella,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so glad you liked it!

  5. Hey Violet,
    I really enjoyed learning about your chosen topic! I learned so much new information and I am so glad that I got this opportunity! I loved your use of infographics and images, and I think they really helped me grasp your concept better! I found it interesting that the community that someone lives in, directly impacts their physical health, in terms of exercise. I thought that you did a great job of connecting your topic with your local community by listing some resources that could help eliminate a decline in health, due to exercising. Great job! Thank you so much for choosing this important topic!

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