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Giving high school students a leg up on exercise science careers

Mark Aquino works in a classroom filled with three Life Fitness treadmills, three ellipticals and two stationary bikes, three scales, stacks of free weights – and one skeleton.

“Sitting and reading and watching a lecture, only about one-third of the population can learn that way. The other two-thirds need to see it, hear it and do it,” said Aquino, 36, the sports conditioning and exercise science instructor at the Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES Ormsby Center in East Aurora.

The personal trainer – who holds a computer information systems degree from SUNY Buffalo State, as well as more than 25 nutrition and exercise science certificates – teaches high school juniors and seniors from several district in the Southtowns. They learn the fundamentals for several careers: physical therapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, dietetics, athletic training and personal training.

Most of the 30 students in the two-year program pay a modest fee to take the course. Successful completion for those students means up to eight SUNY college credits – at a fraction of college costs – and a head start on their college and professional careers.

Julie Cheman is among Aquino’s charges. The 17-year-old Springville-Griffith Institute senior plans to join the Army after she graduates next year. She wants to become a physical therapist.

“I’ve always been interested in health and fitness,” Cheman said, “so this was a great option for me.”

Aquino lives in North Tonawanda and likes to listen to fitness-related books-on-tape during his 45-minute commute. He loves to teach what he’s learned with those who share his passion for helping others to live healthier lives.

Q. How did you become involved in fitness?

I started in martial arts when I was 3 years old. I got my black belt in Tai Kwon Do, American self-defense, Kenpo Karate, and I took other martial arts, too. ... As a freshman at Buff State, I realized computers were my hobby but fitness was my passion. Computer science was more practical but in the end, I didn’t want to sit and look at computer code eight hours a day. I realized I wanted to interact with people, I wanted to help change lives.

Q. What did you do after college?

I went into personal training and group exercise: the Aquatics and Fitness Center in Tonawanda, World Gym in Niagara Falls, Bally Total Fitness, which was in Amherst, Best Fitness in Tonawanda, Fitness 19. There was a time I worked in three, four different places at once. I’ve been the training director at almost all of those places. And I owned my own business, too, called Mark Fitness, at various clubs. I was doing that when I heard about six years ago that Erie 1 BOCES wanted to start a personal trainer program. I was on their advisory council and a teacher position opened up and I started working there. Then Erie 2 BOCES wanted to start a training program about four years ago. It was a great opportunity.

Q. Can you talk about the program?

Everybody gets, bare minimum, a certification in personal training. They’re prepped to take a certified personal trainer exam. The exam is not part of the course itself because there are so many different organizations they can go to, but they are more than prepared to walk into any of those exams and feel 100 percent confident. If they choose to go on to another career, they have all the introductory information, the basic theories, that they can step into any of these career paths and hit the ground running.

Q. What do they learn?

Junior year, everybody learns the basic human sciences: anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics, general health studies. Senior year they work a lot on career research, college prep and an application of everything they learned junior year. They also can choose two 20-hour internships.

Q. Why did BOCES become interested in this program?

The health industry as a whole is projected at 28 percent job growth. People are becoming more health-conscious and realizing medication isn’t the best way to do it. They’re becoming proactive instead of reactive.

Q. What gets the students most pumped in here?

When they see the application and how they can use it in their lives. The other part is the success they get from hands-on instruction. The rubber meets the road after you see it and not only can they apply it, but teach other people to do it. Students apply it at home. I have parents tell me all the time, “My child told me I can’t go out to eat at this restaurant because it doesn’t have the healthy options they want,” or “Every time I bend down to pick up the laundry basket they’re yelling at me that my knees are going past my toes and it’s not the right form.” I say, “Awesome.” They’re applying what they’ve learned in a functional manner to people they care about.

Q. You say these kinds of programs are less than 10 years old. What are the next 10 years going to look like?

My hope is the state, the colleges, the counselors, the parents and the students realize how invaluable tech-ed programing is. Number one, it’s life skills: time management, organization. It’s employability skills: what will get you hired and keep that job? College skills: we do work a lot on college prep and our classes are 2½ hours, so we have a lot more time to work individually with the student. We also have a lot more resources that some schools are able to have.