‘Power Up for 30’ showing results in Georgia kids

With the state mired in a child obesity epidemic, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald made her case last school year for more exercise.

Kids were not only heavy, but also weak.

The message co-signed by Fitzgerald and State Superintendent John Barge that was sent to elementary schools across the state was simple: Find a way to get kids moving more. It was not as a replacement for recess or PE, but school systems instead were asked to develop new and innovative cardio programs to braid into an already time-pressed day.

State officials asked for pledges for what they coined “Power Up for 30,” which is part of Georgia Shape, a coalition of education, health care, government and nonprofit leaders dedicated to improving the state’s significant childhood obesity problem.

Schools started signing up across the state. And now, some early results are in — and they are encouraging.

Kids are more fit, seeing an improvement in their BMIs and gaining a better understanding of the connection between physical activity and overall health, according to a pilot study by HealthMPowers, a nonprofit, which tracked progress during this first school year at 39 schools in five school districts (Bibb, Baldwin, Henry, Jones, Monroe).

Key findings by a team of Georgia State University professors evaluating the results from 2,600 students include the following:

— More laps. The average number of PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) laps completed at baseline was 21.3 laps. At the end of the year, each child, on average, completed 24 laps, marking about a 13 percent increase in number of laps completed. PACER is designed to measure aerobic capacity. The objective of the PACER is to run as long as possible while keeping a specified pace.

— Steps also went up. The number of daily steps, on average, went from 3,515 to 3,778 — an increase of almost 8 percent.

— Better understanding of the importance of physical activity and why it matters. The percentage of correct responses to questions about health, such as understanding what you should do after you score low on an aerobic fitness test, went up 89 percent from a test before the program started compared to a test after a year of the program.

— A decline in BMI (body mass index). Fifty-seven percent of students’ BMI percentile score dropped. (It increased for 40 percent; stayed the same for 3 percent.)

Observers laud these findings, saying these results demonstrate efforts to boost exercise at schools are already paying off. And the hope is they will lead to larger, lifelong healthy lifestyle changes.

“Clearly, especially when you look at the knowledge level on physical activity, the needle got moved,” said Michael Metzler, professor at Georgia State University. “And with the others — there are incremental changes, but they are all in the right direction. I think that’s the important takeaway. The needle may not be moving fast, but we know how to make the needle move.”

Across the state, 321 public elementary schools have taken the Power Up for 30 pledge, and committed to incorporating 30 or more minutes of exercise into the daily routine — including everything from Zumba and yoga classes before the first bell rings to walking and running clubs after school and 10-minute deskercize and “brain boosters” such as jogging in place next to your desk.

Georgia health officials celebrated the results, but they acknowledged more work needs to be done.

These schools represent only about 25 percent of all public elementary schools in the state.

“What we want is every child in every school to have 30 minutes more of physical activity,” Fitzgerald said. “That is the aim.”

Based on the 2013 Fitnessgram results (annual fitness assessments), 41 percent of Georgia kids are at an unhealthy weight, which includes children who are underweight, but the vast majority of those kids outside this healthy weight zone are overweight or obese. (Exact breakdown is not available.)

HealthMPowers, a nonprofit organization that was funded by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia Foundation for this study, also helps schools maximize the benefits of adding exercise to the school day by providing schools with professional training, curriculum and resources to enable teachers to increase physical activity among their students during the school day, as well as before and after school — without taking any time away from instructional time. In many cases, schools are finding ways to combine exercise and classwork.

For example, Christi Kay, president of HealthMPowers, said children in the study wore pedometers, and the kids would not only record their steps in booklets, but also turn the steps into a math problem — figuring out the average number of steps each day or charting their steps on a graph.

Kay said while schools were encouraged to add at least 30 more minutes of exercise into the day, many schools added several more minutes — and did so in smart and creative ways.

She said some schools opened their doors early and set up exercise stations in the gym to give kids a chance to work out before the first bell rang. Teachers also integrated brain boosters into subjects and got kids moving between changing subjects at school.

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