Fit Bodies, Fit Brains: Academic Benefits of Physical Activity for Children with Sophia Wastler, MS Ed

In this episode of the Brainy Moms podcast, Dr. Amy and Teri interview Sophia Wastler, MS Ed, the Founder and CEO of the STARZ Program–a children’s fitness enrichment program. Sophia shares how her experience as a physical education teacher inspired her to create a fitness program for young children to give them a jump start on the benefits to their brains, academic performance, and mental health. She gives tips for helping kids engage in physical activity and tells us why it’s so important. Sophia also shares how moms can easily start their own children’s fitness business. 

Read the transcript of this episode:

Episode 109:
Fit Bodies, Fit Brains: Academic Benefits of Physical Activity for Children

with Sophia Wastler, MS Ed

Dr. Amy Moore: Hi and welcome to this episode of Brainy Moms. I’m Dr. Amy Moore, and I’m here with Teri  Miller coming to you from a partly sunny Colorado. We are excited to introduce you to our guest today, Sophia Wastler. Sophia is the founder and creator of the STARZ Program and CEO for STARZ Program Franchise. She holds a Master’s of Science in Education and has always been a teacher. She taught performing arts to all ages while she was in college. Once she completed her degree, she taught health and physical education for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. After a seven year career there, Sophia created the STARZ program, a children’s fitness enrichment program that has taught hundreds of thousands of children. It’s currently operating in three States, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. After seeing it’s success and the benefit it had to children, the STARZ program became a franchise in 2017, and it is now available for launch in all 50 States. Welcome Sophia.

Sophia Wastler: Thank you so much, Teri  and Dr. Amy for having me, I am so excited to be part of your Brainy Moms podcast. I’ve been listening to some of your episodes and this is great content. So thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Teri Miller: Good. Yeah. Well, so I want you to tell our listeners all about the STARZ program and why you created it.

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. So as, as you heard, I was a teacher in the public school system for quite a number of years, and I was, it became apparent to me after a few years that I was starting to see a high correlation between the students that were participating in sports (so organized athletics) and success, essentially. So I guess what it was, It was actually more obvious the opposite. I was seeing the students that I was teaching that were not involved in athletics. Those were the students that were getting into more trouble, doing poorly academically, in not the best friend group or, or low self-esteem. And so again, I saw that the opposite was true to those students that were participating in organized sports, doing better in school, more competent. And I thought, wow, there’s such a strong correlation here. And I sort of think about, you know, parents and not all parents can get their child out to soccer on a Saturday or can get them to a dance studio late in the evening after they’ve been working all day.

So, I thought we need to develop a program that comes to the early childhood education, you know, early childhood sector so that we can start teaching them foundational fundamental skills at a young age, so that they feel more confident to participate in these activities as they get older. Because if you think about it like elementary school, you’ve got one PE teacher for 30 kids in a class. And so it’s nearly impossible for that teacher to show little Tommy how to hold the bat or how to, you know, track the football. So, at STARZ, we get them early, we get them young three, four, five, and six years old. And we teach them those skills in a small setting. Most of our, our classes have five, six, you know, no more than 10 kids in a class at the same time.

Teri Miller: Wow.

Dr. Amy Moore: That’s a great ratio.

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. Well, I was just going to say it’s so convenient for parents. I mean, they don’t have to run, you know, they don’t have to go anywhere after work. I mean, their child is getting the enrichment and the learning right there at their school.

Teri Miller: So, what’s the, I want to know your personal story. Tell the listeners about your personal story of why you started this program, this business. How, how did it impact you first?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. I just, you know, I really get jazzed up when I see kids light up. Yeah, no, I mean, you can see to me, I don’t know if it’s that I can like read energy or I can just, you just can see when a child is, you know, feeling down right? Or when they’re like, look at me, I did it, you know? And so I was taking my son to the park one day and we were doing T-ball. It was the summer I was off. He was like three at the time. And I set up the T-ball stand and my son goes up there and he hits the ball. He’s so excited. He’s running the bases and the neighbor who had come along with us to the park, like, he didn’t know how to stand at the, at the tee. He didn’t know how to hold the bat. And you could just see, he was like, well, why did, why could Vinny do it? And I can’t. And after just showing him just a few minutes, like, Hey, this is how you do it. He just lit up! So, it was after then that I thought I’ve really got to start a program because I could just see that the, I could just see the benefit to, to the child.

Teri Miller: So obviously you have a personal connection with athletics, with that sports coaching. I mean, obviously if knew how to coach that kid. So that’s an important piece of, of why you were able to start it too. I’m hearing. Yeah?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. I was a PE teacher and which, which is so funny because I was never into sports growing up. I kind of got into athletics as I got older and same thing with adults. I mean, you can tell when you work on your fitness or you, you can, your confidence grows. So, yeah.

Teri Miller: So, what kind of feedback do you normally get from parents of the children that are in the STARZ program? What do you hear from other parents?

Sophia Wastler: Oh, that’s my favorite part, Teri, is that, you know, parents say, Oh, my daughter can’t wait for STARZ day. She can’t wait for Tuesday, whatever day we come to her school. And they always, parents say that their kids like to show them what they’ve learned. These, you know, these are my obliques or this is my bicep. Cause we like to teach them about their body as well. And I think the biggest thing too, that I love hearing from parents is that they see their children kind of coming out of their shell. And so a lot of the shyer ones, and I think it’s because of that one-on-one instruction. I mean, who doesn’t feel better once they’ve learned a new skill, you know, it’s just, it’s kind of a natural confidence booster. And so our hope is that that carries with them. As they go to elementary school as they go to middle school and they feel more confident to participate in sports and it just overall leads them to success.

Teri Miller: Nice.

Dr. Amy Moore: So, what does that actually look like? You actually, you said you go to their program to bring it to them. So, what does that look like?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah, so we hire teachers who just drive from school to school basically. It’s it could be now because we are working in mostly early childhood centers, daycares, preschools, Montessori schools, and such we can work. We can teach classes all throughout the day, as long as it’s not instructional time. So we might have some classes at 10 or 11 or, I mean all throughout the day. So our teachers go to the school the same day, same time each week to teach a STARZ class, whether it’s a dance class, a sports class, cheerleading, it’s some sort of fitness.

Teri Miller: So let me ask ,I’m just trying to envision what this would look like at say at my kid’s school. So if it’s a dance class, would everyone in that class have to take the same thing or is it kids sort of sign up for the things they’re interested in? How does that work?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So most of the time it’s the parents that choose to enroll their children in our program. And so we just we’ll take those children that have enrolled they’ll participate in the class. There are some scenarios, that’s the majority of the way it operates. There are some scenarios where the school says we want everyone to participate. And so we’ll do kind of like a PE program for the school, but we’re coming in there teaching everyone more fitness class by class type fitness. So we do both, but the majority of the program is smaller setting, parents pay.

Teri Miller: Okay, Now I’m. okay. Now I’m getting it right.

Dr. Amy Moore: So if the child is not enrolled in an early childhood program, they don’t have access to you, right?

Sophia Wastler: Yes. And we’re working on that because we we’ve had a lot, we’ve had that situation, especially during the pandemic where, you know, parents were like, we need something for our kids. What can we do? And you know, they’re not in school. So we’ve had that situation. We’ve had some situations where moms, they’re just not the kids just don’t go to school. And so, and those situations we’re in, depending on the community, sometimes we’ll partner with like a Pilates studio or some something where we can, you know, rent like a little room. So we can have some space where parents can bring the children to us. But, most of the business is us going to the school.

Dr. Amy Moore: Great. So I want to talk a little bit about, well I want you to talk a little bit about the actual benefits of a program like this. So the benefits of physical activity to children, not only for their body, but also for their brains. Talk a little bit about that. Yes.

Sophia Wastler: So yeah, when I was, so when I was teaching middle school, physical health and PE, we had some weeks that we were teaching PE and some weeks that we were in the classroom teaching health and especially in the weeks that I was teaching health, it’s just really, it was really apparent to me. The kids are going from classroom to classroom, to classroom, right? They’ve got English, they’ve got math, they’ve got science, government, social studies, history, whatever they’re taking. And so by the time they get to your class, I mean, they have been sitting all day and they kind of get this like glazed look, you know, and if the benefit is, and I mean, it’s, it’s documented that regular physical activity increases attention span. It increases your alertness, your capacity for learning. So whenever I would kind of get that look, I say, all right, everybody stand up. And we would do some sort of just even standing next to their desk, whether it was like jumping jacks or burpees, something running in place, just something to get their heart rate pumping. And now you’ve got more blood running through to the brain. And just after just a few minutes of that, when they sit back down, they’re more focused, you know, they’re more alert. And so a lot of people don’t realize that, you know, exercise is not just good for the body. It’s really good for your brain, too. It improves learning all kinds of things.

Teri Miller: Well, I, I just wanted to insert, just to say, absolutely. I have just recently been reading similar to what you’re talking about. In March end of March Science Daily, which is a great resource that I follow. They published an article titled Cardio-Respiratory Fitness Improves Grades At School, and their article was reviewing a research study of the indirect role of executive functions on the relationship between cardio, respiratory fitness and school grades. And so, I mean, obviously we can guess that, you know, the conclusions were that higher grades were associated with improved cardio-respiratory fitness. And so, I mean, yeah, the science is there. As parents, we need to know that this isn’t just about physical fitness. This is about our brains, too.

Sophia Wastler: It’s amazing. And there’s, there was another study I read not too long ago. That was, I think it was out of Norway. And it was testing for the age group was six to eight years old. And those, it had two groups, the control group, and then the other group, and basically one group had been exposed to moderate, to vigorous physical activity between those years and the other group didn’t and they, and they followed the children for a number of years after the study. And the children that had participated in moderate to vigorous activity were less likely to have depression, signs of depression two years later. So it’s almost like it was almost like an insurance policy, like get your kids active and you’re almost like protecting them against, you know, depression for years afterwards. I was so impressed with, I was, I was really, I thought that was pretty eye opening as well.

Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s very well known the benefits of exercise to improve depressive symptoms day to day, but to see that it has future reach as well is fascinating and encouraging too, right?

 Sophia Wastler: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what was surprised me.

Teri Miller: That’s so encouraging because I think it’s easier as a parent to push your child into physical fitness when they’re, you know, preschool elementary. And it’s, it’s about middle school when kids start really getting hit with depression, when we see that more in, and that’s when it’s harder to push our kids into things, they’re like, I don’t want to, I just want to play a video game, but to be encouraged that, you know, I worked with them fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, and now they’re going downhill. But to have that confidence that like having your kid involved in a program like this, that’s going to have a long-term benefit. That’s great.

Sophia Wastler: That’s exactly right. I mean, and it’s all about developing healthy habits. We talk about that as, as, as adults even, but like you’re saying, I mean, if you get them into that, if you get them into, if you build those habits young, it’s easier to have them continue. It’s like, Hey, I’m brushing my teeth every day. It’s just something that you do versus trying to get them to do it when they’re older. So that’s exactly right. We want to build those healthier habits when they’re younger.

Teri Miller: So, tell our listeners, what are some of the, the consequences of not having your, your kid be active? What happens into adulthood? What are some of those consequences?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. You know, when I was in graduate school, I think one of the most shocking things to me was that learning that obesity had surpassed smoking for the number one cause of preventable disease in the U. S. And so, I mean, everything, almost every disease could somehow be linked back to an unhealthy body weight. And so it just goes back to what we were just saying. It’s just, I think it’s easier to build a healthy habits when a child is young and it just becomes second nature to them as part of their daily routine that they’re used to kind of getting some activity. And I think that just, we want them to develop into healthier adults versus maybe missing that. And then you’re on the other side of it. And now you’re having could have health problems are more likely to have health problems as you get older. If, if you don’t really have those healthier habits that you’ve developed.

Dr. Amy Moore: So. we want to hear lots more from you, but we need to take a quick break and read a word from our sponsor.

Sophia Wastler: Great.

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Dr. Amy Moore: And we’re back talking to Sophia Wastler, the founder and creator of the STARZ program.

Teri Miller: So, what advice Sophia do you have for moms who are doing distance learning or online school homeschooling, that kind of thing, obviously with the pandemic, what advice do you have for them to help engage their kids in physical activity?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah, that’s a good question. Just make it a priority. That’s my biggest advice, make it a priority. Just like we focus on English and math and, and testing and SOLs and all of these things. I think physical activity has to become a priority again for us as, as a society and education. And, parents are role models, you know, to model that behavior yourself, to show that it’s important that you get out. I mean, even if you just get outside to walk and you know, something that you’re showing your children, that it is important and you’re, you’re making time for them to do it as well. And to encourage them to get out there and do it as well. And it doesn’t have to be anything complicated, it could be something simple, you know, just, yeah, just getting outside, getting that, getting that heart pumping.

Dr. Amy Moore: So, what about moms who can’t be active themselves? You know, maybe they have chronic illness or, you know, injured knees or something like that. And so it’s super hard for them to model a physical activity, but they know how important it is and they want their kids to engage. What, what could we say to them? What could you say to them?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah, that’s a good point. I didn’t consider that. You know, there’s so many good resources that are free on online, uh, on YouTube to put, you know, find something that’s, uh, has good, good content that the child can just kind of watch and, and engage with. Or I know when I was teaching, this is kind of old school, but we would get, uh, you know, CDs. There’s all kinds of like, you could, you can download, I’m sure, something that’s like, follow along with me now we’re going to hop like a bunny or, you know, so they can get something like that where they put it on their child, listens to it and kind of moves along with what the instructions are. So whether it’s something on YouTube or whether it’s something audio, something like that to help help the child be active.

Dr. Amy Moore: That’s a great idea. And it reminds me, so I was a preschool teacher and, we would have like Raffi and some of the other, you know, musical activities. And we would record the kids specifically for their parents. And so it made them want to engage when we said, Hey, we’re going to take a video. And of course this was in the late eighties and early nineties when we had a big old video camera. Right. But we’re going to take a video so your parents can see. And so that might be fun for a mom who’s stuck on the couch to be able to say, I’m going to put this on for you to, you know, you to partake in and I’m going to record you and we can show daddy when he gets home or we can put it on, you know, mommy’s Facebook page or something, you know, to help encourage them to.

Sophia Wastler: Absolutely. That’s a great idea. I love that.

Teri Miller: Yeah. Because kids love it. They love watching videos of themselves, you know?

Sophia Wastler: Oh yeah, definitely.

Teri Miller: Well, I want to ask you a hard question.

Sophia Wastler: Okay.

Teri Miller: So, Amy and I have talked about this in previous podcasts, previous episodes, and we’ve not really done a great job of, of finding a conclusion or a good answer. And so I’m hoping that you can help. So in regards to physical activity, how do you help a kiddo who is just not an outdoor kid or not a very physical kid? And I say that from personal experience, in particular, one of my sons is just very, uh, brainiac. You know, he’s just a big nerd. He’s super smart. And he is, he doesn’t like physical activity. He doesn’t like the heat. He doesn’t like the cold, he doesn’t like risk. So he doesn’t like riding his bike fast. He’s kind of cautious and a little more fearful. How can I encourage him to still be safe, Physically active?

Dr. Amy Moore: Well, I think it’s important to say he would rather sit inside and read, right? He has absolutely different interests. Like doesn’t even have an interest in physical activity,

Teri Miller: That’s it. Yes. Yeah.

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. And I think there, you know, there’s, I understand what you’re saying. Everybody’s different and there’s a lot of cases like that. And it’s great that you have a brainiac that wants to read. Cause you’ve got plenty of moms on the other spectrum that like, Oh my gosh, I wish I could just get my child to sit down and read. So, I would say, you know, and that’s one thing that I do really like about STARZ is that we, every month in our sports program, we teach, we expose the children to a new sport. So they’re getting, you know, one month it might be soccer one month, it might be basketball, but it’s, there’s nine different sports. So we’re exposing them to something new every month. And after several months that we’ve worked with the child, we tell the parents, Hey, we’ve seen Roger, you know, the last few months, and he’s really a natural at golf, you know, whatever the sport is that we’re teaching them. And so a parent would have never known that and they go, wow, now that I know that I can pursue that, but going back to the question, there’s just so many things. I mean, there’s, you know, karate and there’s, I mean, so many, a variety of sports there’s dance. I mean, boys can get into dance and hip hop and there’s so many different things. So I would just say as a parent, just to try to expose them to as many different things as possible that hopefully there’s something there. And it might not be an outdoor sport. It might be going to a karate studio or a dance studio, but surely there’s something that might pique his interest, but he does want to engage in. Maybe it’s maybe it’s golf, you know, some surely there’s something.

Teri Miller: That is good. Yeah. We’re finding it.

Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah. I was an indoor girl and did not participate in sports, but my grandmother introduced me to bowling and I found that that was exciting enough and I could do it, you know? So I’m not athletic in any way but that was the one physical activity that I enjoyed.

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. Yeah. There’s so many different things, but it’s, it’s just finding that and getting them to, to want to try those different things. That’s a whole other thing, getting them to want to try all of those different things, but yeah. Yeah.

Teri Miller: All right. That’s good idea.

Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah. Thanks for sharing those. Before we ask you a couple of personal questions is there anything else you want our listeners to know about fitness for young children or about the STARZ program?

Sophia Wastler: You know, nothing that comes to mind. We obviously are passionate about what we do, uh, for children and we think it’s a great program. Parents think it’s a great program. The schools love it. The children love it. And we are looking to expand it in different communities. So if this, if it’s something that maybe piques one of your listeners, we’d love to talk to them about perhaps launch them, launching a STARZ program in their community.

Teri Miller: Well, goodness. Yeah. Let me, let me flip the thought perspective here. I I’ve been thinking from the viewpoint of the parent who wants to take advantage of these kinds of things. There’s plenty of parents out there who aren’t stuck on the couch. They’re the ones that are on the sidelines of the soccer field, you know, yelling at all the kids and coaching ’em and you know, the, the dance moms that make the costumes and do all, do everything, you know, and are, there for every practice. So yeah. What about for parents that are super involved, love athletics, love sports, and want to, have a passion like you do, want to bring it to the community, where would they begin? What would be the first step?

Sophia Wastler: Yeah, I mean, we, we have created a franchise. I mean, after doing this in different communities, in different markets for over a decade, we decided to make it into a franchise. So it would be as simple as contacting us, you know, STARZ, franchise.com or sending an email and, and just having a discussion as far as, you know, it’s a business ownership, but, it’s a really great opportunity. I think for people that love children, that kind of want to have something that’s meaningful, but also flexible. And you can, you can do it. Part-time. So we’d love to talk to those, those people, those moms

Dr. Amy Moore: Does it require a large upfront investment?

Sophia Wastler: Uh, there is a franchise fee. I don’t think it’s large. We have, we also have like try before you buy where it’s a very small investment and they could try it for a year to see if that’s something that they want to pursue, you know, to continue,  if it works for them or not. And so that’s a much smaller investment and they could go that route as well.

Teri Miller: That is great. Yeah. And I think, yeah, for parents that are passionate about fitness and getting their kids active, that’s a great way to dip your toe in the water and make sure is this really what is going to work for me and my family and the cool thing I’m thinking. The cool thing about that is you get one parent to dip their toe in the water and the community is going to rally and say, we want this, we want this. I mean, invariably, you know, it’s going to happen. Cause exactly. I love this.

Sophia Wastler: Yes. And if you have a, if you have a three or four year old, your friends have most likely they have young children too. And so all of a sudden making these partnerships with schools is pretty easy because you’re kind of in that that’s kind of in your world, in your wheel house anyway.

Dr. Amy Moore: Okay. So a couple of personal questions, and we like to ask all of our brainy guests these.  So first of all, if you could go back in time, what words of encouragement would you give yourself as a new mom?

Sophia Wastler: If only we could go back in time. I would tell myself without a doubt, I would say, relax, relax, because children pick up on your energy and, you know, we’re, so I was so worried as a new mom about like getting it all right or having to, it’s almost like I had the mentality that you have to shape and you have to, you know, and we are, we’re responsible for guiding our children’s development. Obviously we are. But I think just taking an approach of just relaxing a little bit more and exposing your children to what different, as much as we can, and then letting them show us who they are. And then we just, for me, I would, I would just say, all you have to do is support and encourage, you know? So maybe not try so hard, you’re just there to support, encourage, guide the development, you know, expose them to as much as you can. Cause I mean, I just remember the pressure of being a new mom and right now going back, I’d say just relax, you know, relax a little bit more. Enjoy it. Enjoy each other. Yeah.

Teri Miller: That’s right. Beautiful. Such good advice. I think I still need that today.

Dr. Amy Moore: That’s for all moms at all times.

Teri Miller: Yes. Chill out.

Sophia Wastler: Yeah. We need to just enjoy each other more and not try to change or fix or, you know, just see, you know, see where they are, see where you are and just be there. Yeah. If that makes any sense. Yeah.

Teri Miller: Yeah. So what is a favorite product or an indulgence? Something that you just are loving right now?

Sophia Wastler: You’re going to make me confess this, but I’m going to confess. Yes. I try to, well I’m I make it a priority to I exercise regularly and (coughs) excuse me, do my best to eat well, (coughs) excuse me. We have allergies here on the East coast.

Teri Miller: Oh, everywhere. Yeah. And the situation with the world today, anybody coughs and everyone goes, Oh my Goodness. You know?

Dr. Amy Moore: So I know, I say it’s just allergies!

Teri Miller: Right. I just got a frog in my throat. I’m just coughing. I’m not sick, I promise!

Sophia Wastler: So it’s, I love dark chocolate, so Hershey’s makes a nugget. There’s an almond and some dark chocolate and it’s like 45 calories. And I, every day after lunch and after dinner, I might sneak one or two nice Hershey, Hershey stuff, chocolate with almonds. Is that it? I think it’s called Hershey’s nuggets or something. It’s the nugget and they’re delicious. Yes.

Dr. Amy Moore: All right. So we’re out of time and need to wrap this up, but this has been a great conversation today. And so we want to thank our guest, Sophia Wastler from the STARZ program. If you’d like to connect with Sophia or learn more about the STARZ program, you can visit STARZprogram.com or STARZfranchise.com if actually starting a STARZ program interests you. But we’ll put her social media handles and links to those websites in our show notes.

And we just want to say, thanks so much for listening today. If you liked our show, please leave us a rating and or a review on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast platform. And follow us on social media @TheBrainyMoms. You can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter under the handle, @Dr_Amy Moore. And until next time look, we know you’re busy moms and we’re busy moms. So, we’re out.

Teri Miller: See ya!

Post Show Notes:
To learn more about Sophia Wastler and the STARZ program for children, visit www.STARZProgram.com. To find out how to start your own STARZ Program, visit www.STARZFranchise.com.

Connect with our guest Sophia Wastler on social media:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sophia-wastler-ms-ed-21660052/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SophiaWastler

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/says_sophie/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sophierenee33

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