Feature Article - November 2006
Find a printable version here

An Exercise In Creativity

Fitness programs that lead the pack

By Stacy St. Clair

Send in the clowns

Sally Shaver has watched childhood obesity rates climb for the past 18 years.

But the Ames, Iowa, educator has never seen it this bad.

"It's amazing to me how many preschoolers are coming to school obese," she said. "Kids today are not getting the physical activity children in the past received. One of the reasons is too much time in front of a screen, whether it's a TV, computer or video-game screen. Another reason is the time factor. Most kids are from two-parent working families where time is of the essence. Kids are in a lot more activities today than they used to be in, and there is no time to make a meal from scratch anymore. It's all fast food in the drive-through."

The prevalence of overweight children has more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1980, roughly 7 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 were overweight. Today, that number has ballooned to roughly 16 percent.

Among the chief causes is the woefully sedentary lifestyle in which they engage.

The Internet and video games make it easy for a child or teenager to spend all afternoon in front of screen. Not only does TV-watching prevent children from taking part in physical activity, but it also leaves them susceptible to advertisers. Research has shown that prolonged television exposure correlates to decreased fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as higher intakes of fast food and fried food.

Schools, no matter how well-meaning, haven't helped much in this regard. Lunch options aren't as well balanced as they could be, and many campus vending machines sell high-calorie, high-fat snacks and sugary sodas. Poor nutrition is becoming even more dangerous in school systems where physical education has been cut as part of drastic budget-reduction measures.

Here's where Shaver, a former physical education teacher, enters the picture. She visits schools as Silly Sally the Clown, a wacky character who uses music, puppetry and jokes to teach kids about the benefits of exercise and good nutrition. She gets the children up and moving during the program, getting them to exercise even if they don't realize it.

"I think for children, and even for adults, the most important thing is to make exercise fun," she said. "Incorporate music, obstacle courses, parachutes and doing activities with songs that have music. They need to get into it."

Shaver expanded her fitness-first repertoire in January when she purchased and converted an old bus into a mobile gymnasium. The seats have been removed from the vehicle and replaced with carpeting and padding, as well as slides, rings, balance beams and tumbling mats. Her service—the KangaKids Fun Bus—offers preschools and daycare centers an entertaining (and affordable) way to provide students with weekly physical education classes.

Similar buses have been in operation for several years in other areas, but there had never been such a service in her community. The response has been extremely positive, said Shaver, who also has released a "Fun with Sally" video and CD.

"I had been thinking about doing this for 10 years, and now I have this creative fitness program," she said. "Right now, kids and parents really enjoy it. It's a new concept for central Iowa. It's just a matter of educating parents."

No matter the fitness program, instructors must cater their classes to children's motor skills and attention spans. Shaver recommends limiting activity length to the child's age. For example, when working with 4-year-olds, keep the activity time to about four minutes before moving onto the next.

"With kids, variety is important," Shaver said. "You have to keep them interested in what they're doing."

She also knows that young children like structure and stability, so she tries to keep the exercises and activities familiar. She ends each class with the same song and puppet performance. Her most repeated lesson, however, encourages her young charges to be lifelong fitness enthusiasts. She tells them over and over that it doesn't matter what they're doing, as long as they're moving.

"Doing something," she reminds them, "is always better than doing nothing."