Julie Lewis | The Daily StarOneonta Middle School teacher Caitlin Moreland and 8th grade student Harry Whispell pass a medicine ball over their heads while excercising in the gymnasium at the school on Thursday.Julie Lewis

Running, lifting, stretching and pushing physical limits are evoking smiles, laughter and feelings of success from students and teachers alike in the Oneonta Middle School gymnasium.

It's all part of the school's annual physical fitness unit, which uses mega doses of positive reinforcement to help teens get and stay fit.

The goal of the unit is "increasing and improving physical fitness in seventh- and eighth-graders," said Jennifer Stark, a physical education teacher at OMS, on Thursday.

But this year, the seventh and eighth graders are doing it with a twist. They have invited their teachers to work out with them.

At the beginning of the unit, each student takes a running test to assess his or her level of fitness, Stark said.

Thereafter, the classes exercise at 17 different stations. At the end of the unit, students take a post-test to gauge improvement.

When planning this year's unit, Stark said, she mentioned to fellow OMS physical education teacher Tom Marks that the school's teachers needed to exercise as well.

That led to the creation of an incentive program in which students have been inviting teachers and school staff to exercise with students in gym class or at any other convenient time.

Teacher response to the initiative, which began Monday, has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Stark.

"It's gotten absolutely crazy," Stark said. "I had no idea there would be such participation."

Stark and Marks distribute handmade white paper stars to the students, which they give to teachers as an invitation to exercise during gym class or another time.

After a teacher has exercised, he or she receives a red heart pin to wear for the rest of the day, Stark said.

"The kids can see that (the teacher) worked out," Stark said.

Stark said the student who issued the invitation receives a reward, such as an exemption from having to run a mile in gym class, or a healthy snack courtesy of Stark.

"It's an outstanding program," said OMS principal Kevin Johnson while observing a gym class in progress Thursday.

"Teachers are involved and willing to take chances and do things outside of their comfort zone," Johnson said.

Johnson said he attributes students' enthusiasm for the challenging exercise routine in part to the variety of activities offered. As well as traditional exercises such as running laps and doing chin-ups, students engage in boxing moves, yoga postures and cross-training exercises.

"It's not something we would have done back in the day," Johnson said.

Aliya Williams, an eighth-grader at OMS, said she likes the exercise program. "I'm trying my hardest, so I hope that I am improving," she said Thursday. She said she likes working at the yoga station "because I'm good at balancing myself."

Rostin Turlay, a seventh-grader, said he likes the diversity of exercises in the unit. "Balancing exercises are fun," he said. "You can always fall, but you try again."

Eileen Robbins, 52, is a science teacher at OMS. She said she accepted 26 student invitations to exercise and is working hard to meet her obligation before the unit ends Wednesday.

Robbins said that receiving encouragement from the students while exercising has helped her to improve her level of performance.

"When I started, I couldn't run three laps around the gym. Two weeks later, I can run 10 laps around the gym," Robbins said.

"(The students) are accepting me into their world," Robbins said. "I think we should be able to see what they are going through each day."

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