February 18, 2012
'Get kids moving'
Marple: Add exercise to school day
Kate Long
As part of the state push to increase physical activity, Webster County high school seniors taught active games to kindergartners at Diana Elementary. Senior Levi Stout (left), who wants to be a pediatrician, said, "I understand a lot more now about why its important for kids to be active."
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DIANA, W.Va. -- Four Webster County High School seniors danced on the kindergarten rug.

"Fly like an eagle!" they called, flapping their arms. Kindergartners flapped their wings.

"Jump like you're popcorn popping! Run from a growling bear! Slither like worms! Sway like a tree in a windstorm!" The Diana Elementary kindergartners jumped, learning vocabulary as they slithered and swayed.

The older students slithered and swayed too. They'd come to promote a new campaign to get kids up and moving through the school day.

To battle obesity, West Virginia Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple is asking schools and teachers to weave 15 extra minutes of physical activity into each day. "Plenty of research tells us physical activity improves a child's ability to listen and focus and learn."

Since September, Marple's staff has crisscrossed the state, putting on more than 125 "Let's Move! West Virginia" demonstrations. They haven't reached all schools yet. "It sounds good, but I never heard of it," a Kenna Elementary teacher said last week.

In Webster County, one of Marple's staff members trained the high school students to demonstrate for younger kids. "I plan to be a pediatrician, so this has been a great experience," said senior Levi Stout. "It helped me understand why it's important for kids to be active."

"It's taught me how important exercise is, how it helps kids pay attention, stay healthy, and avoid things like diabetes," said Ashley Short, who plans to be a nurse.

At Diana Elementary, they played a quick, aerobic round of rock, scissors, paper with the fifth-graders, then the kids sat back down smiling, faces flushed.

"Our kids come from the hollers around Diana," said Rondlynn Cool, Diana Elementary principal. "A lot don't get much exercise outside of school. We're in favor of this."

A few miles away, the lunchtime crew at the Hometown Diner was in favor, too. "These kids ought to be out climbing trees and playing," owner Sharon Hall said, "but they're stuck to those little game machines. Their thumbs get plenty of exercise, but not the rest of them."

What can 15 minutes do?

Above all, Superintendent Marple wants to limit chair time -- children sitting for hours.

"We have an obesity and wellness problem, and the schools can do their part by getting kids moving," she said. "We know, from research, that when children sit for too long, they lose the ability to concentrate."

They are also more likely to gain weight and have high blood pressure or cholesterol. "We'd like to see younger kids up and moving every 20 minutes," Marple said.

Soon after she took office, Marple cancelled rigid requirements that dictated the exact number of minutes teachers must spend on each subject. "If students are excited, I don't want them to have to cut a lesson off because the time's up," she said.

She also wants teachers to be free to weave bursts of physical activity through the day. "We're giving teachers the flexibility to say, 'I know that I need to get my kids up and moving. They'll come back more ready to concentrate."

"Kids are happier when they get to move," she said. It can positively change a school's culture, she said.

Marple hopes eventually to lower the obesity rate. In 2010-11, 18 percent of kindergartners and 23 percent of second-graders came to school obese. One in four fifth-graders had high blood pressure and red-flag cholesterol levels, and one in four was obese, according to measurements by West Virginia University.

Obese children are at higher risk of future heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other problems.

"We also have a huge percent of children who live in poverty," Marple said. "Children who live in poverty often suffer from chronic stress. When you suffer from chronic stress, you may have difficulty focusing on instruction, and you're more likely to be obese. Research tells us you can lower stress by getting the heart rate up. All these things are interconnected."

How do we do this?

By the end of January, about 109 elementary and middle schools had signed on to Marple's "Let's Move! West Virginia" campaign.

There are already at least 130 West Virginia schools in the national Healthy Schools Network, aimed at increasing physical activity and good nutrition in schools.

Mary Weikle is in charge of the "Let's Move! West Virginia" campaign. Fifteen minutes is not enough, but it's important to start with something that's easily possible for a classroom teacher, she says.

She knows some teachers will resist. "With No Child Left Behind, teachers are under a lot of pressure for their kids to score well. They feel like there's no time to lose. We hope to convince them short physical activity breaks will help, by keeping kids alert and reducing discipline problems."

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