Class at Arroyo Grande High helps students get fit, eat healthy

Special to The TribuneFebruary 11, 2014 

Arroyo Grande High School sophomore Myra Ventura, left, and senior Jacob Romo pose with Gail Varvel, their physical education teacher, and some radishes donated by Talley Farms Fresh Harvest.


These days high school students must pass a physical fitness test before graduation. If they can pass it after two years of physical education classes, that’s good. But if they don’t, they must take another year or two of P.E. until they do.

Gail Varvel, P.E. teacher at Arroyo Grande High School, developed a new class three years ago for students needing an extra year. Called PE/Fitness, the class consists of two days of cardio, two days of weight training and one day of yoga.

Many of the students who enroll in the class are overweight.

Senior Jacob Romo, 17, lost 60 pounds over two years. “It makes me feel a lot more confident. I am so happy that I actually did lose all that weight,” he said. Said Varvel, “He was extremely shy as a freshman,” and now he has a lot more confidence.

Sophomore Myra Ventura, 17, has lost 22 pounds. “I feel good with myself and people around me,” she said.

Both students have improved their speed running the mile.

This year Varvel added a new component to the class. After learning that many students weren’t used to having many vegetables at home, she partnered with Andrea Chavez at Talley Farms Fresh Harvest to add vegetables to the program. Now Talley donates a different vegetable to the students each week.

Varvel picks up the vegetables at Talley, including cabbages, artichokes, carrots, Brussels sprouts and radishes. This week it was radishes.

“It’s been awesome,” Varvel said. “Some have been exposed to vegetables they’ve never had.”

Jacob said he liked the Brussels sprouts; Myra liked the carrots. Students are given recipes for the vegetables, then go home and prepare them, and take a “selfie” photograph of themselves with their vegetable, or have their parents write a note.

“It’s a lot of work to keep vegetables in your diet,” Varvel said, adding that students learn that they’re “really yummy.” Myra still eats her family’s tasty Mexican food, but she eats smaller portions and has stopped drinking soda.

Jacob said, “My parents supported me a lot, and at the end of sophomore year I started making more progress.” He chose to take the class again after passing the test last year.

“I just have a real compassion for students who struggle with fitness or weight,” Varvel said.

She has had a lot of support from the community. Arroyo Grande Community Hospital has given a grant to buy treadmills and workout equipment, for example. Trinity Cyclery in Grover Beach has donated a bike as an incentive. The Running Warehouse in San Luis Obispo gives every student (48 students this year) a pair of good running shoes (worth $100) at the end of each year.

Some students like the yoga, and some don’t because it’s not active. But it exposes them to body movement that includes stretching, concentration and meditation.

Varvel encourages slow weight loss of one to two pounds per week. She varies the workouts to keep students interested. Sometimes they do step aerobics, sometimes running, sometimes power walking. All students leave class in much better shape at the end of the year.

Gayle Cuddy’s column is special to The Tribune. She and Cynthia Lambert write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cuddy at 489-1026 or

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