Feature Article - November 2013
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Marketing Movement & Exercise

YMCAs, Schools Help Spur Youth to Exercise, Eat Healthier

By Deborah L. Vence

Health conditions related to obesity, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers, are considered the primary causes of preventable death in the United States. Yet, these illnesses continue to plague Americans, with more than one-third of adults considered obese who, on top of that, are spending more money annually in medical bills as opposed to people who are at a normal weight.

What's more, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States, which is triple the rate from just one generation ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But, why is there such an epidemic among youth?

One reason could be that "Parents have elevated concern about the safety of their children," said Cheryl Richardson, MS, CSCS, senior director of member engagement and programming at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), Reston, Va.

Years ago, kids often would just take off on their bikes. Parents assumed they were safe. There wasn't as much worry as there is now.

"I think [it's very] limiting now. I think there are so many competing activities. Videos games are one of them," Richardson said. "Another issue we run into is so many of our kids' activities are structured. They almost don't know what to do … games and all sorts of things. Kids go to practice, but they don't go to play. They are not making decisions on how to use their time. They are being told how to use their time."

YMCAs and schools alike are working to change this pattern, however, and address youth obesity across the nation through special programs to promote wellness. Many comprehensive programs already have been established to help kids learn how to lead a healthier lifestyle—by exercising regularly and eating nutritious foods.

Get Moving

One of those programs, Richardson noted, is Let's Move Active Schools, which is part of the Let's Move! family of initiatives started by First Lady Michelle Obama. The Let's Move! Campaign, created to end childhood obesity in the United States, was first announced in February 2010—the goal being to encourage healthier food in schools, better food labeling and more physical activity for children.

An Active School is defined as a school that incorporates physical activity before, during and after school for at least 60 minutes a day.

And, some schools have done just that.

For example, Memorial Elementary School in Natick, Mass., has been successful in its physical activity program before and after school.

According to the Let's Move Active Schools website, Memorial Elementary is an active school that is thriving due to the work of a group of moms. Recognizing an opportunity in the before-school hour, the school's parents established BOKS, a free morning movement program featuring high-energy games that help prepare both the body and mind for a day of learning. The physical activity is paying off. Teachers have reported that youth in the program exhibit more confidence and a higher attention span, as well as improved academic performance.

In another example, Ridge Family Center for Learning in Elk Grove Village, Ill., focuses on physical activity during school.

Since 2009, students and teachers at Ridge Family Center for Learning have led a charge to promote healthy lifestyles through the Fuel Up to Play 60 Program. In the classroom, teachers conduct what are called "brain breaks" to energize and re-focus students throughout the day. Then, after class gets out, students in the Ridge Fit Club attempt new activities, using pedometers and heart monitors to measure their progress. Moreover, the Ridge Family Center recently transformed its annual open house into a Family Fitness Night, which boasts student-led activity stations and prizes, according to the Let's Move Active Schools website.

Schools like Memorial Elementary and Ridge Family Center are making the goal of the Let's Move Active Schools a reality, which is to make sure that every school provides a comprehensive school physical activity program (CSPAP) with quality physical education being the basis of the program. (A CSPAP is defined as an approach by which school districts and schools use all opportunities for school-based physical activity to develop physically educated students who participate in 60-plus minutes of physical activity each day and develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be physically active for a lifetime.)