Michelle Obama, Tufts Make New Push For More Active School Kids

Those enviable upper arms are at it again.

Hoping to extend the reach of her three-year-old Let’s Move! campaign, Michelle Obama today made a pitch for kids to be more active at school. The First Lady’s new initiative, Let’s Move Active Schools, is partnering with 9 organizations — including one based at Tufts — to help combat childhood obesity by instituting a range of creative, accessible programs for kids to get more exercise through fun, school-based activities.

The Huffington Post covered Ms. Obama’s announcement this morning: “With each passing year, schools feel like it’s just getting harder to find the time, the money and the will to help our kids be active. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should stop trying,” the first lady said in her prepared remarks. “It means we should try harder. It means that all of us – not just educators, but businesses and nonprofits and ordinary citizens – we all need to dig deeper and start getting even more creative.”

Christina D. Economos, PhD, is Associate Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and a leading researcher in the field of childhood obesity prevention. She’s also Vice-Chair and Director of ChildObesity180, a nonprofit based at Tufts that is working with the First Lady and supports a variety of strategies to help kids become healthier through improved nutrition and physical activity.

Piggy-backing on Ms. Obama’s news, ChildObesity180′s program, the Active Schools Acceleration Project (ASAP), made its own announcement today: the group will award grants totaling $1 million to 1,000 schools to launch one of three award-winning physical activity programs. Each of the three plans — one started by a bunch of moms in Natick, another called the 100-Mile Club and a third that supports short bursts of activity in urban classrooms — are fun for kids, accessible and have shown both physical and behavioral benefits, like better concentration in class, Economos said.

The $1 million in grants will support schools in adopting one of these programs, Economos said, including tools and resources like in-person training and assistance from professional groups.

Here’s a bit more on the three exercise prograns:

–The BOKS initiative, started by the Natick moms, is a before-school plan designed to prepare children’s bodies and brains for the day. It features a range of moderate to vigorous activities — games, strengthening exercises, cardio work and stretching — and ends with a cool-down and nutrition tips (like how many cubes of sugar in a juice box).

–The 100 Mile Club, started in California, challenges elementary school kids to run, jog, or walk 100 miles over the course of the school year. “They can accumulate the miles through school classes or outside school and it fosters great comraderie. It’s a club, so you feel like you’re part of something and there’s a big celebration at the end of the year,” Economos said.

–CHALK/Just Move is a classroom-based activity program for small spaces and “challenging environments” like schools in New York City, Economos said. Students are encouraged to get up and do short bursts of activity throughout the day, either during class or in between. (Just last month, a new study found that this type of short-burst activity is particularly effective for students.) The program began in New York City and Economos said that teachers who have used it report after just 10 minutes of exercise, “kids sit back down and they’re ready to learn.” She added: “This is delivering a dose in a consistent way; the trick is you have to do it throughout the day.”

Of course, some teachers push back, she said, “and it’s understandable — all these things interfere with the core curriculum. It’s a question of introducing it and seeing what the results are. Most of the time it’s positive — it’s that toe in the water, a principal has to take that initiative.”

Any school can apply for the Acceleration Grants,” from February 28 through April 22. Funding for the grants comes from the health insurer Cigna’s foundation and Kaiser Permanente.

The current situation in many schools is bleak when it comes to physical activity. “The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the federal government in 2008, recommend that children and adolescents be active for at least 60 minutes per day. But in 2003-2004 only 42 percent of children ages 6 to 11 met that standard and fewer than 8 percent of adolescents did,” according to one recent study.

What’s your school doing to get your kids moving? Or isn’t it? Do you have your own ideas on how to fix this? Let us know.

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