Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph Reveals the Exercise She Learned in Kindergarten That She Still Loves Today

As America returns to school and Hollywood remains on strike, the Emmy-winning actress gets a gold star for using her time off to support the nation's classrooms.

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays a teacher on the ABC award-winning sitcom Abbott Elementary, is supposed to be in school right now—at least on set. “We’d have gone back in July, and we’d probably have been having our first hiatus and then getting ready to go right back,” Ralph says. “They say it’s a hot union summer—a hot strike summer—and we’re really fighting for the rights of those workers who are making less than the $25,000 that they need to be able to get their healthcare.”

Last year at this time, Ralph, 66, was about to win the Best Supporting Actress Emmy, when she delivered an inspiring acceptance speech about human potential. This year, she’s using her platform to tell teachers’ stories in another way: According to the U.S. Department of Education, most American educators spend a portion of their own salaries to buy classroom supplies or respond to students’ personal needs, like lunch and menstrual products. To support them, Sheryl Lee Ralph has partnered with the snack brand MadeGood, which is rewarding $200 to 1,000 teachers across the United States to purchase back-to-school supplies.

With many Americans dealing with the stress and excitement of a new year, this week Ralph sat down with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest to talk about how she’s navigated tense times through breathwork and positive affirmations…and the exercises she learned in kindergarten that she still loves today.

Sheryl Lee Ralph on helping teachers head back to school

The Healthy @Readers Digest: The summer flew by, like always. At The Healthy, we love Abbott Elementary, and we love teachers—we recently shared some heroic burnout management secrets from 50 teachers around the country. What drew you to this MadeGood partnership?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: What I love about it is being able to shine the light on MadeGood, share some good fun, and the ability to reward 1,000 teachers in the United States to help assist with their back-to-school purchases—I mean, that’s a lot of good being done.

The Healthy: What did nutrition look like when you were younger?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: My parents weren’t into the whole sweet snacks. They were not into the whole salty snacks. You would get an apple, she would cut up carrots. It’s very funny, because I was reading the back of a label of one of the MadeGood products, and the ingredients were carrots, apples, beets, honey. And I was like, my mother would love this so much.

The Healthy: That’s so great.What does nutrition look like for you as an adult?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I have really veered away from being a hunter-gatherer with a whole lot of meat. I’m really a good pescatarian. I believe that the food you put into your body is important, and people have to pay attention to what they’re eating.

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The Healthy: Is that more a health decision, or an ethical decision?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: My husband [Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes, whom she married in 2005] is a pescatarian, and has been. It’s so funny that sometimes you marry people and their habits rub off on you and you eat better to eliminate certain things and add things that are good for you. His diet just became a part of who I am and how I live my life.

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Sheryl Lee Ralph on loving oneself

The Healthy: Life is full of such highs and lows, and your Emmy speech last year seemed to reflect on this. What have you learned that you wish you could share with kids?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: You are enough just the way you are. Work on loving yourself, being yourself, respecting yourself, appreciating yourself, because the better you are at doing that for yourself, the more you’re going to be able to do for everybody else that will come into your life. And it’s going to happen. Don’t worry about the color of your skin, don’t worry about your nose, don’t worry about your lips. Don’t worry about any of that. You are just fine the way you are.

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The Healthy: That’s beautiful. We often cover mental health on our site. As outlets like People have reported, you’ve shared how 10 years ago your son suffered a traumatic head injury in a car accident and then was shot during a mugging incident. Talk about resilience: Today he runs WalkGoodLA, which focuses on mental health and overall wellbeing. What did you find that was helpful getting through that time for you?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh my God. It’s one of those things where I think what helps me to move through difficult times is that I guess I breathe my way through it. I compartmentalize things. I put it in a place where I can deal with it in my brain and move forward.

And I have to tell you that it’s maybe a simple thing, but breathing is so important. It was one thing I realized: I was not breathing enough. I wasn’t breathing deeply enough.

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Sheryl Lee Ralph on taming stress

The Healthy: Breath work can be really, really impactful. Is there a specific type of breath work that you found helpful for you?

Ralph: My daughter actually is certified in breath work. All I know is: Breathe in for the count of three, hold it for the count of three, exhale for the count of three, breathe in again for the count of three. Don’t ask me why that works, but it works. It can get you centered real fast.

The Healthy: Absolutely. Is there anything else you do for general de-stressing and joy?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I believe in massage. Get a massage. I love the whole idea of stretching, because this is one thing I’ve learned: Your body is made up of these ligaments, and these ligaments become like rubber bands. And we all know what happens when we let the rubber bands sit in the drawer and don’t stretch them out: That when you take them out of the drawer, they snap, because you have not taken care of the rubber bands. You think you should just leave them like that in a ball? No. You’ve got to stretch those rubber bands out and use them properly.

The Healthy: Good visual!

Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know, there’s that exercise that you learned in kindergarten: Bend and stretch, reach the skies, stand on tippy-toes, way up high. That’s still a good exercise.

The Healthy: I love that you brought it all the way back to school. It’s a full circle.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Absolutely. Then there’s Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. I mean, all of that stuff that you learned in kindergarten, you can still use it now.

The Healthy: We ask all our celebrities this question: What is one self-care ritual that you refuse to skip?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I actually love getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror and having a wonderful conversation with myself. I’m going to encourage myself, I’m going to lift up myself, I’m going to respect myself, and do that for me so that I can consider doing it for everybody else that I will meet during the day. But the first conversation is with me and God, and those are the two very important ones.

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Laura Lane
Laura is a journalist, comedy writer, podcaster and co-author of two books, which have both been optioned for television. She’s spent over a decade covering celebrities, as well as writing about topics including wellness, travel, politics, fashion, food, sports, tech and entertainment. She has written about her own health journey and is deeply passionate about wellness and nutrition.