John Cooper School Wellness Corner, Part 1: The importance of physical activity and fitness

By: Sean K. Thompson
| Published 02/04/2023


THE WOODLANDS, TX – The John Cooper School, one of the top-tier private schools in The Woodlands area, celebrating its 35th year of providing high-level education to students K-12, recently observed its Wellness Week.

As part of the four-day observance, each day was dedicated to an aspect of human wellness. The first day revolved around physical activity and fitness.

“When it comes to wellness, there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” said Dr. Stephen Popp, who is the Head of John Cooper School. “During Wellness Week, many of us reflected, acknowledged, and addressed some aspects of our well-being. We encouraged our students and staff to continue to place importance on nourishing their whole self and overall wellness, physically and mentally, and to seek guidance as needed.”

John Hoye, Director of Athletics at the school, stressed the importance of exercise. “We have all heard it many times – exercising is good for you. But at times we may lack the motivation to get ourselves moving. Of the numerous benefits of exercising, the top five truly stand out: exercise improves mood, it boosts energy, it promotes better sleep, it controls weight, and it combats health conditions and diseases.”

Physical fitness does far more than just getting one’s body into shape: it also has a profound impact on academic achievement in the classroom and career achievement for adults, according to Jill Del Rio, Physical Education Department Chair of John Cooper.

“It’s documented that exercising as little as two hours per week has been shown to increase academic performance,” she said. “Physical activity can increase the number of brain neurotransmitters which assists your ability to focus, concentrate, and handle stress; it can bump up the production of your brain's feel good neurotransmitters called endorphins; and it can increase self-confidence, improve your mood, help you to relax, and lower mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. So find something that you enjoy, and get moving.”

For those who shudder at the thought of physical exertions, Coach Andris Dikmanis, the Director of Athletic Performance, assured us that even the relatively benign action of stretching can have far-reaching benefits.

“Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain range of motion in the joints,” he said. “Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage. Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean, and flexible.

Coach Dikmanis pointed out that primary reasons to stretch daily were that stretching relieves pain, decreases stress, provides energy, promotes circulation, improves range of motion, improves posture, and increases stamina.

Another low-impact form of exercise with benefits is yoga, according to art teacher Emily Taylor. Her background is in Anusara yoga, which is an alignment-based practice. Ms. Taylor has been practicing yoga for nine years and is quick to credit her teaching style to the myriad of excellent teachers she has had the privilege to study with.

“Yoga connects breath with movement and cultivates an opportunity for the practitioner to turn their attention inward. These key aspects keep me coming back to my mat,” she said.

Jon Schroeder, Director of Performing Arts at the school, had much to say on the topic of Wellness and the Arts.

“Anyone who has been part of a performance, whether it is a drama production, musical, dance, or music concert, knows that these performances and the process that leads up to them induce a multitude of emotions,” he said. “Performing Arts engages multiple parts of your brain simultaneously and exercises many of the different intelligences that have been identified as critical to development and learning strategies, often without even realizing everything involved. These activities, blending creativity with physicality, teamwork with responsibility, critical thinking with relaxation all combine to support not only our community in enjoyable activities, but also support student wellness and well-being by providing an enjoyable environment for students to explore their interests and express themselves through their art.”

Even Dr. Popp himself walks the walk as he talks the talk, metaphorically speaking, when it comes to health, wellness, and fitness. He has run five marathons, ten half marathons, and a bunch of Turkey Trots and 5k and 10k races. He ran track and cross country in high school, and continues to run this day because of the physical and mental benefits running affords him. Running is how he keeps moving, stays centered, and finds solace and strength.

When asked what running means to Dr. Popp, he said, “To me, running is an exercise in exploration, for when you are on a run, you are learning about the places around you, and about yourself, and you are always finding new vistas and views. Running is an experience that enlivens as well, and as anyone who has experienced ‘runner’s high’ will tell you, the pride and accomplishment of completing a race is enduring. And running can be, I believe, quite an apt metaphor for the life we live. It is for these reasons that I run, and I feel fortunate to have had the ability to log so many miles over so many years.”

Dr. Popp was also immensely proud of several members of the school who recently ran the Aramco Houston Half Marathon alongside him, Megan Day, Walter Day, Ava Perugini, Tahari King, and Mrs. Pam Hill.

Stay tuned to Woodlands Online in the coming weeks for more John Cooper School Wellness Corner stories.

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