Fifteen years ago, Dr. Oz walked into an auditorium to speak to high school students about the human body, using real organs to get them engaged. The next morning, he received an avalanche of questions — from parents. The students had shared their new wisdom. It made Dr. Oz realize something powerful: that kids could be the agents of change and help tackle health crises like obesity.
Enter HealthCorps, which Dr. Oz founded with his wife, Lisa, in 2003. Based on the Peace Corps model, the organization recruits and trains recent college graduates to serve as mentors at high schools from coast to coast. They each make a two-year commitment to teach teens that by eating differently, moving a little more, and developing mental resilience, they can change their entire health destiny.
The results are exciting. Students who participated were 36% more likely to report an increase in physical activity (says research published in Childhood Obesity) and also felt happier. (In one study, 69% reported better self-esteem.) The program has reached more than 550,000 teens and is growing with the help of the CK-12 Foundation, a nonprofit that offers free digital educational resources to classrooms worldwide.
That activism thing is happening too: Students are leading lunchtime hummus taste tests and school-wide dance-offs. They're tossing more veggies into the family shopping cart and getting their folks off the couch for evening walks. They're changing waistlines, habits, and hopes. Want to join them? Follow that teen!
He Inspired His Whole Family
At just 16, Ramon Chicas walked away from a routine doctor's visit with a devastating diagnosis: He had high blood pressure and was dangerously close to developing type 2 diabetes. "When my mom told me more about what that meant, I was really scared," says Ramon, then a junior at Houston's Sharpstown High School. "I knew I had to do something." First step: an after-school cooking club led by HealthCorps mentor Max Blumenthal.
Max seized on the teen's love of baseball, emphasizing how the right foods could help him improve his game. Wow, was that motivating. Before long, Ramon was a standout. "Every dish he made came out amazing!" reports Max.
Ramon also became the well-being warrior of his family, bringing home favorite recipes like black-bean tacos and homemade granola bars. He gave his parents a primer on portion size. "One day, I grabbed a kid's plate out of the cabinet and told them, 'We should be eating on this — it gives the illusion that less is more,'" Ramon says. "We still eat on those plates, and it's really helped the whole family."
Over about a year, Ramon dropped 40 pounds and built an unbreakable sense of determination. Now a senior, he's on the varsity baseball roster — a once unthinkable prospect for the kid who, at his first practice, had fallen down breathless after a single warm-up lap. "I can run more than I used to. I can lift more weights," Ramon says. "HealthCorps taught me how to deal with stress, to study calmly — it actually helped me focus. You just need willpower. Anything you want to do, you can accomplish."
She Lost Her Parents but Found Her Way
Julia Santiago remembers looking around the room one morning in sixth grade when her dance teacher announced a father-daughter dinner. "The other girls were so excited," says the Stockton, CA, teen. "That's when it really hit me: All of these people have fathers, and I don't." Julia's mom had left the family shortly after she was born, and her dad died from colon cancer three years later. Her aunt had stepped in and was raising her lovingly, but Julia still felt a void. To fill it, she turned to food. After hearing about the dance, she went home and tore into the cupcakes and potato chips that were always stocked on the kitchen counter.
What ended this bleak binge cycle? A sip of green smoothie offered by HealthCorps mentor Precious Fortes. At lunchtime during the fall of her junior year, Julia reluctantly accepted a sample. "I expected it to taste like grass," says Julia. "But it was pretty good!" So when Precious followed up by inviting her to a healthy cooking class, Julia said yes. Over the next few weeks, she learned how to stir-fry veggies and what the heck tofu was, and she also developed a strong bond with Precious, who helped her fully understand the connection between eating and emotions. "Ms. Fortes said, 'OK, we're not going to feed your stress anymore — we're going to talk about it instead,'" Julia recalls.
Precious taught her how to make simple but high-impact tweaks — more fruit, less junk food, a little Zumba to blow off steam. And Julia brought her new knowledge home to her aunt. (Those cupcakes and potato chips? Replaced with apples and homemade trail mix.) Weight loss wasn't her main goal, but Julia dropped 10 pounds over two years.
Today, her mentor is a first-year medical student at UCLA, and Julia is headed in the same direction, as a pre-med freshman at the University of Oregon. Precious remains her cheerleader. "I didn't learn about nutrition until college," she says. "Julia already has healthy skills and is putting them to use! I couldn't be prouder."
They Run for Sisterhood!
When Alice Curchin, a HealthCorps mentor, arrived at Sacramento's Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School last fall, she wondered why so many of the girls hung back and didn't participate during gym class. The answer might have discouraged a different kind of teacher, but not Alice. "They told me they didn't want to get sweaty in front of the boys," she says. "I knew then I wanted to create a safe space just for them where they could exercise and build confidence."
Just like that the Running Club was born — but it wasn't only about pounding the pavement. Alice's newly formed, all-girl gang got together to chat about everything from healthy preworkout snacks to the pressures they felt to look a certain way. They also took 40-minute, set-your-own-pace runs, with no headphones or cell phones allowed. The idea, says Alice, was to teach the girls that exercise has a power beyond fitness and weight loss: It can give you much-needed time with your own thoughts, help you forget your worries, and tap emotional resources you didn't know you had.
That's a lesson 18-year-old JoJoe Hernandez picked up almost immediately. She'd initially joined the club to hang out with her younger sister Elsie, 16 — but the track quickly became its own draw. "I get this adrenaline rush whenever I run," says JoJoe. "And it makes me feel really good about myself." Elsie has become less critical of her body. "Before, I would complain a lot because I have bigger thighs," she explains. "Now I realize they're really strong!"
Alice is especially proud that Elsie and JoJoe have extended the support-group model to their family, taking their little sisters on short jogs while chatting with them about issues like bullying and body image. The girls got Teresa, age 7, to open up about the true source of the frequent headaches that had often kept her home from school: She was being teased for being the tallest person in the first grade class. "We told her, 'Teresa, people have all kinds of opinions, so you can't let them bother you,'" says JoJoe. "Just live your life and love your body — you'll be happier."
In June, all 12 Running Club members completed a 5K — a goal that every one of them had proclaimed impossible when the club started in March. Alice, a longtime recreational runner, was also a newbie at competing. "I love that we all got to experience that first race together," she says. "They were all very, very sweaty, and very beautiful, crossing the finish line."
This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.