Every year, Pam Best starts off Jump Rope for Heart Week at Mars Elementary School by asking her students if they know someone who’s had a stroke or heart disease. “Almost all of them raise their hands,” says Best, a health and physical education teacher.
It’s safe to say that same response would be consistent in most schools in the country. Cardiovascular disease accounts for about 836,000 deaths annually, and it remains the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. And someone in the nation has a stroke every 40 seconds, according to the American Heart Association’s 2018 statistics.
While startling, these statistics illustrate the importance of learning about habits that improve heart health at an early age. In addition to her day-to-day role as the elementary health and physical education teacher, Best has been teaching those healthy habits as part of the AHA’s Jump Rope for Heart Week, which took place at Mars Elementary from February 20 to 26.
As Best explains, preparation for the week kicks off in January when students in grades two through four start with long rope jumping, followed by short rope jumping in February. When Jump Rope for Heart Week begins, students spend time in PE class each day jumping rope, as well as taking part in a variety of jumping activities such as using pogo sticks, bouncy balls and taking part in group jump activities.
During the week, students also raised money for the AHA to support heart research, education and emergency care. This year, Mars Elementary recorded its third highest total for fundraising by raising a little more than $24,000 — topping last year’s total of around $23,000.
“One girl, her dad had a fundraiser for her and they raffled items off,” says Best, who has been leading Jump Rope for Heart Week at Mars Elementary for nearly 30 years.
“She made $1,500 and then raised another $1,000, so she’s been the highest fundraiser I’ve ever had,” she adds.
A major focus is also placed on education and the importance of practicing healthy habits. The AHA offers a list of seven tips to ensure heart health: stay active, maintain a healthy weight, watch your cholesterol, don't smoke, maintain proper nutrition, keep a healthy blood pressure and monitor your blood sugar.
In her physical education classes, Best emphasizes the importance of getting moving.
“It’s not a lot of sports where kids who don’t like sports don’t want to participate,” she says. “Find something you like to do, whether it’s walking, running or a sport. You’re trying to encourage them to be active during their lifetime.”
And while there are prizes and incentives for students who raise money for the AHA, Best stresses to students the prizes are only a bonus. The real value is in helping people achieve better heart health and further encouraging a healthy lifestyle.
“We always talk about that we’re jumping for their hearts — we’re jumping for other people’s hearts,” Best says.