Carrie JohnsonCarrie Johnson Inspires CC Students to Take Control of Their Own Health

Centralia College Health and PE Professor Carrie Johnson didn’t always enjoy athletics. “I didn’t even take PE in high school because I hated exercise and I hated sports,” she said. “I was always the last one picked for the team.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but she actually was athletic – just not in the traditional sense. “I enjoyed outdoor activities,” she said. “I skied, biked and hiked.”

Today Johnson incorporates more comprehensive athletic experiences into her curriculum. This helps many students who, like Johnson, once considered themselves not athletic. “Activity is accessible for everyone; it doesn’t have to look a particular way,” she said. “I like to weave that into all my classes.”

Johnson has seen this strategy pay off time and time again. Often, her courses empower students to incorporate physical fitness into their lives on a more consistent basis. Sometimes, they go big. “I ran into a gal who took boot camp class years ago,” Johnson recalled. “She wasn’t super fit when she took the class and she wasn’t super into it. But she shared with me that the class got her going and she now does ultra-marathons. That was the springboard getting her into the idea of working out and now she does these super marathons.”

The Starting Line
Johnson earned her undergraduate degree in recreation and parks with the goal of becoming a camp director. Ultimately, however, she found the work schedule incompatible with maintaining a healthy family life. She found a better fit working as the City of Centralia’s Recreation Supervisor. “We had a lot of fitness classes at the time,” she said. “I taught some and realized I liked that a lot more.”

She began teaching fitness classes at Thorbeckes and earned her Master’s in Health Exercise and Recreation from Emporia State University in Kansas. “You evolve in your life,” she explained.

Johnson taught her first class at Centralia College 29 years ago – a simple quarter-long physical education class. She picked up additional courses here and there as an adjunct professor for several years, working her way from part- to full-time. In 2019, she crossed a new milestone by earning tenure. “It’s so great,” she said. “I have secure employment to finish out my work years in a place I really love.”

A Team Sport
Like many great teachers, Johnson practices what she preaches. Each quarter, she asks her students to research a positive, health-related behavior change and implement it into their own lives – and she joins them with projects of her own. One quarter, she gave up Chai Tea. Another time, she focused on getting two full bottles of water a day. “It’s about empowering students to see that they have control over their health behaviors,” she said. “Just setting a small goal that’s manageable is powerful. Your goals will build one upon another.”

Johnson is currently conducting follow-up studies to see how many students permanently adopt their focus behavior. “Whatever they do in life, whether they become a teacher or a doctor or an engineer, taking better care of themselves can enhance what they do,” she explained.

One particularly beneficial behavior is social engagement. “Happiness for all of us is to get connected to each other,” she said. “Looking at some of the most recent research, social support and connection are actually above fitness and diet in determining longevity.”

Johnson works to create an environment where students feel supported and can connect with one another. “I remember one student who sat out by herself,” she recalled. “She would sit with her head down all the time. Then, one day, I saw her move and sit by another student. She made a new friend. It’s great just seeing students move forward in healthy ways.”

Special walk-and-talk assignments help Johnson’s students improve their social connections and mental acuity. “Research shows that when you move and are doing mental tasks, it increases your ability to learn,” she said. “I give them a discussion topic and they walk around and discuss. They have to switch partners. I also give extra credit for participating in something on campus for student engagement. It’s important to feel like you belong and have connections.”

Leading the Pack
Johnson teaches around 200 students each quarter. She offers everything from general physical education classes to stress management, Pilates, yoga and technology in fitness. She has instructed in Centralia, Morton and at the Tribal Center, and worked remotely with Cedar Creek inmates. “I really enjoy working with a variety of students in different environments,” she said.

She also teaches more sport-specific courses like snowshoeing and hiking. “I love taking people into the outdoors and empowering them to get out and do this,” she said. “One young couple got together from snowshoeing. Two of my neighbors, who are in their 70s, took the classes as well. In bringing the generations together, a lot of learning can take place.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s main goal is to impress upon students that they have control over their health. The results can pay dividends for decades – and even generations – to come.