Written by Lindsey Osborne
Christy Swaid knows how empowering a healthy lifestyle can be. Swaid is a six-time world champion professional jet ski racer. She is the only woman in the world to ride up and down West Virginia’s New River Gorge class-five rapids on a stand-up jet ski. Among a slew of other honors, she was named as one of the fittest women in America by Competitor magazine in 2000 and Muscle and Fitness in 2001. “I grew up with two older brothers who were very athletic and competitive,” Swaid says. “My choice was to keep up with them or be left to play alone on the beach.”
Swaid, 45, moved from California to Birmingham in 2002 after marrying her husband, Dr. Swaid N. Swaid. Shortly after arriving in Alabama, Swaid pioneered Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL), an initiative that seeks to educate children in Alabama on healthy living and the impact it can have on their lives. To accomplish this, HEAL works directly with Alabama schools, providing health- and fitness-based curriculum for physical education classes, as well as a myriad of other resources, many of which are available on its website, healalabama.org. Currently, HEAL serves approximately 100 schools and 18,000 children statewide. “HEAL was born out of love and compassion for children,” Swaid says. “The driving force in my heart flows from the love of Jesus and His greatest commandment, found in Matthew 22:37: ‘…Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Supporting someone’s health and wellbeing is a powerful expression of love.”
HEAL begins by first equipping physical education teachers with the tools they need to make differences in their students’ lives, including training and curriculum. “We do this with science-based wellness methods wrapped in genuine care and concern,” Swaid says. “Team HEAL first invests in teachers by training, equipping, and supporting teachers’ health journeys both personally and professionally. We inspire and motivate physical educators to leave a legacy and teach by example and with passion. Physical education teachers learn through HEAL that they have the power to set students up for success in every other aspect of their lives. Woven through the curriculum lessons and activities are the underlying messages that every child is valuable, can be successful, and should respect others around them.” Students themselves are rewarded not only with measurable improvement in their health, but also by being recognized as a HEAL Hero.
Like any good world-changing idea, Swaid’s came to her and her husband as they were gathered around their kitchen table. Combining his medical background and her passion for a healthy lifestyle, they devised a plan that they hoped would change lives. “The original idea for HEAL was based on the notion that Alabama has some of the brightest and best doctors in the world, so why couldn’t we design the brightest and best solution to the horrible health epidemic that is causing Alabama’s children so much suffering? We decided the best forum to help children adopt lifelong disease-preventive behaviors would be the physical education class period, where children could learn and practice healthy habits daily that could lead to measurable health improvements,” Swaid explains. “My husband insisted we design science-based measurability in the initial pilot program. These concepts laid the foundation for the success we are experiencing today.”
And the success is obvious. What began in Swaid’s living room now demands its own headquarters. In 2008, the program received a grant from the Greater Birmingham Community Foundation to perform a control/intervention in schools matched by social economic status and representing all demographics in the state of Alabama. “Outcomes showed [that] children who went through the HEAL program significantly improved their cardiovascular fitness test scores as well as knowledge and behavior for physical activity, nutrition, and general wellness over the matched schools without HEAL,” Swaid says. “Our team realized HEAL may be the most powerful disease-prevention program ever designed.” What matters even more to Swaid, her family, and the entire HEAL team are the personal testimonies that come straight from the kids who participate, like the 10-year-old boy who would cut himself and go to the nurse’s office to avoid physical education class. Severely overweight, he had always been embarrassed to participate. “One of our HEAL coordinators convinced him to give HEAL a try. He wore our heart rate monitor and walked independently in his zone. For the first time, he was successful at physical education,” Swaid shares.
Another student used the knowledge she’d gleaned from HEAL to thrive over the summer, even though she and her brother had to stay in their small apartment. “Another moment was when Darriena wrote about how HEAL was her ‘key to life,’” Swaid says. “Her mother made her and her little brother stay inside their tiny apartment all summer because of gun violence. The children suffered anxiety and depression, so Darriena pulled out all of her HEAL curriculum materials and taught her brother how to have fun exercising in small, confined spaces and encouraged her mother to follow the recipes on the HEAL calendars.” The HEAL team used this feedback to create “Renny’s Living Room”—with Renny being HEAL’s gender-neutral mascot—and their studio to film the HEAL Fitness Minute and the HEAL Meal Minute, which air on Alabama Public Television. Their television studio is based on a small apartment space, similar to what Darriena wrote about in her testimony.
Those stories are some of the best, Swaid says—the ones where students not only use the HEAL program to change their own lives, but also to impact those of their families and peers. “A fifth-grade Birmingham City school student wrote about how he taught his grandma to exercise with him in her target heart zone, to trade fried chicken for baked, and eat more fruits and vegetables. As a result, she began to manage her diabetes better. What do you suppose the 10-year-old had over the treating physicians who prescribed medications and counseling to improve her condition? The answer is love,” Swaid says.
“I used to ride waves for a living,” she continues. “HEAL is like a wave of positive energy that is building into a tsunami that can change the health demographics for Alabama and beyond.”