Perfect Fit

Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Denise Thomas-Morrow, BS ’85, is determined to do something about that statistic. Her nonprofit, Healthy Moves, is on a mission to create a model of physical education that will lead to healthier, more active kids.

In 2010, when First Lady Michelle Obama rolled out her initiative to fight childhood obesity, Thomas-Morrow’s first thought was, “How can we get involved?” She learned that because of budget cuts, many elementary schools in the Eugene-Springfield area no longer have dedicated PE teachers. So, she gathered support from community members and in 2011 started Healthy Moves, an organization that brings certified trainers and volunteers into local elementary schools to work with students and train teachers in physical education, at no cost to the schools.

The idea is to support teachers who are not trained in PE with curriculum planning and professional development. “And by supporting teachers,” she says, “we can get to the kids.”

If anyone has the energy and experience to get kids moving, Thomas-Morrow does.

At the height of the 1980s fitness craze, she was living in Manhattan and teaching aerobics at some of New York’s hottest fitness centers. Before long, however, she became disillusioned with the mega-gym mentality. “They were just herding them in,” she says. High-impact aerobics were also taking a toll on her physically, and then an injury stopped her in her tracks. “My whole right side literally locked up and was burning,” she remembers.

That’s when she learned about the Alexander Technique, a form of movement education designed to alleviate tension in the body through improved posture and sensory awareness. “It was quite humbling,” she says. “It was this whole education in body awareness that was missing for someone who was very physical and very athletic.” She learned to be easier on her body, and she wanted to teach that to her students. She realized, “I just want people to move, and I want people to move in all forms.”

Based on that philosophy, Thomas-Morrow started her own fitness company in 1988. Her classes incorporated yoga and trampoline, and omitted heavy weightlifting. “And, lo and behold, people liked what I did,” she says. “People followed me.”

Thomas-Morrow grew up in Eastern Oregon and played basketball, volleyball, and ran track at Baker High School. She attended Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University), where she continued playing three sports. She was studying to become a PE teacher when she took an extracurricular dance class. Her teacher, a graduate of the University of Oregon’s masters in dance education program, noticed her ability and suggested she go for a dance degree. The following year, she traded sports for dance, and transferred to the UO.

Because of her lack of experience, especially in ballet, Thomas-Morrow wasn’t accepted into UO’s dance program until the following year. “You can’t just come in off the street and think you can dance,” she says. But Janet Descutner, her advisor, and Susan Zadoff, the head ballet instructor at the time, encouraged her to keep going, and she improved quickly. “I never went up on pointe,” she says. But the discipline she developed in ballet at the UO “carries through to everything else.”

After graduation, Thomas-Morrow went to New York to dance at the Ailey School and then to Steps on Broadway, a training school for professional dancers. But one day she walked by an aerobics class, and that changed the trajectory of her life again. “The music was cool and they had on tennis shoes,” she says. Soon she was going to the aerobics class more than her dance classes. “I think it was pulling me back to athletics.”

In 1997, Thomas-Morrow returned to Oregon with her husband Randy and rebooted her fitness business out of her home studio in Eugene, where she teaches low-impact aerobics, trampoline, and yoga to small groups, and offers private fitness lessons, chronic pain consultations, and training in the Alexander Technique. She also designs employee health programs, tailored to each work setting. Employees are offered muscle alignment sessions and group exercise classes that focus on the specific muscle groups most used at work.

Meanwhile, her nonprofit, Healthy Moves, is growing rapidly, supported by fundraising events, direct donations, and grants, including a $50,000 grant from Nike’s “Designed to Move” program. The organization received $30,000 in 2013 and $100,000 in 2014 from the Oregon Department of Education, which allowed them to serve eight schools last year.

Healthy Moves also offers “Jump Start,” a 30-minute before-school exercise program, as well as physical activity planning and guidance to schools and community organizations.

Thomas-Morrow says her ultimate goal is to inspire kids to stay active throughout their lives. “Longevity is what we’re really after,” she says. “Just do some sort of movement that’s good for you and motivates you and is going to help you be well.” 

—By LeeAnn Dakers

LeeAnn Dakers, BS ’96, is a freelance writer in Eugene.