'Get kids moving'
Read more of The Shape We're In
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."
Nobody is ordering teachers to participate, Weikle said. "They'd dig their heels in harder," she said. "We want them to buy in. We want this to become as normal as taking roll, part of what a good teacher does."
A former P.E. teacher, Weikle is full of ideas about ways to weave movement into academic instruction. How about jumping jacks while kids recite multiplication tables? A dancing spelling bee, stopping for 15 seconds to scribble after a spelling word is called?
Kids can spell words with their bodies while others guess the words. They can jump when they hear a correct history statement and squat when they hear a false one.
She is collecting videos of kids moving in class, with teacher testimonials, to show at schools that haven't tried it yet. "Once teachers hear from other teachers that it works, a bunch more will want to try."
"They're going in the right direction, but it's not enough and it should be mandatory," said Sam Zizzi, West Virginia University professor of physical activity and sports sciences. "I'm guessing the 15 minutes will be squeezed in and won't be consistent. There'll be no quality control.
"If we really want to take a stand for fitness, we have to follow the national recommendation and get all kids physically active an hour a day. We need to make it a real part of the school day and teach kids that physical activity is important to a healthy life.
"But still, they're starting, and that's great," he said. "The Superintendent is putting that expectation from the top out there. That's a powerful thing."
It's a national movement, Weikle said.
In January, Weikle awarded the first $500 Let's Move! grants to 48 schools. Diana Elementary got one. "We don't have a P.E. teacher, so our teachers teach their own. We'll buy classroom materials," principal Cool said.
"I keep hearing about schools doing creative things," Weikle said: zumba at lunchtime, line dancing before school, outside and inside walking tracks.
Why not daily PE?
In 2005, the Department of Education gave the Legislature a shockingly high estimate of the money it would cost West Virginia to have daily physical education. Physical education requires certified teachers and code-specified facilities, they said. But "physical activity" can happen anytime, anywhere, supervised by any school-approved person.
The Department now says the cost can drop dramatically, if some days are physical activity. "That can be led by volunteers, teachers, or hired aides," Purkey said. "We'd need to train them."
Kids should be moving at least an hour a day, according to: the American Heart Association, Stroke Association, Cancer Society, Institute of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control, and the American Diabetes Association.
For physical education classes, those organizations recommend 30 minutes a day for elementary kids and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school students.
West Virginia doesn't come close. Elementary students are required to have 30 minutes, three times a week. Middle school kids must have 30 minutes a day for one semester, but many schools collapse it into an hour a day for 18 weeks, then no P.E. for the rest of the year.
High school students are required to take only one semester during all four years.
"We don't want to replace physical education. We just want to add more physical activity," Weikle said. "We've got to get kids moving however we can."
At the same time, a coalition of West Virginians from various sectors, ranging from business to child care are putting together a West Virginia physical activity plan that covers both adults and children. No state agency has adopted it yet, since it is not yet complete, but the efforts show that "a wide range of West Virginians recognize the need for it," Weikle said.
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or email@example.com.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.