Statewide fitness initiative gets students off and running

Cheshire - At first, running the distance of a marathon seemed like an impossible task for elementary-schooler Callie Storrs of Mansfield.

"I didn't know if I could run that far, but I paced myself," said Storrs, one of three students from Southeast Elementary School helping promote a new Connecticut Association of Schools fitness initiative at a news conference Thursday. "And we had a lot of encouragement."

Storrs was among about 50 third- and fourth-graders from her school who last spring spent their recess time and Friday afternoons achieving the 26.2-mile marathon goal in one-mile increments as part of the Kidsmarathon program.

The program, piloted at 23 schools last year by the CAS, is now being offered to schools statewide as a means of combating obesity, fostering more physical activity and better nutrition among children.

Training and activity guides the CAS will provide free to schools were created by Rod Dixon, winner of numerous running prizes, including the 1983 New York City Marathon and a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics.

Kidsmarathon is designed for 7- to 12-year-olds, with each student charged $5 or $10 to register, depending on whether their school is a CAS member.

"The program is flexible and easy to implement, and it doesn't impinge on already crowded curriculum demands," said Dave Maloney, CAS assistant executive director. A school could offer Kidsmarathon during recess or at before- or after-school clubs, and it could be run by a classroom teacher, physical education teacher or parent, he said.

As a result of coincidental timing, the expansion of Kidsmarathon from the 23 schools that participated in the pilot program comes close on the heels of the launch of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative to combat childhood obesity and promote better fitness and nutrition.

The two efforts began independently, but "link together perfectly," Maloney said.

Partners and sponsors of the Kidsmarathon program in Connecticut include the state Department of Education, the state Department of Agriculture, Sodexo Food Services and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield Connecticut.

"We know fit children become fit adults, and fit adults are healthy adults," said Dr. Eina Fishman, medical director for Anthem. "We also know that obesity is a public health epidemic."

Participating schools would offer Kidsmarathon programs for eight to 10 weeks starting in the second or third week of March. Students would complete 25.2 miles over that time. The 26th mile would be run at a multischool celebration.

One is scheduled for May 22 at Southington High School and the other will be June 5 at Norwich Free Academy "in front of hundreds and hundreds of fans," Maloney said.

At Southeast School, said teacher Diane Hutton, classroom and kitchen staff as well as parents got involved in Kidsmarathon's fitness and nutrition components. Physical education teacher Betsy Parker added that the program succeeded because it offered students something they were craving - an appealing way to get more exercise.

"I don't believe that kids don't want to move," she said. "They want to move but they need a team around them."

One of the student runners, Emerson Feme, said he enjoys getting outdoors through Kidsmarathon.

"It feels happy just running on open trails and seeing trees and birds and stuff," he said.

Another school that participated in the pilot program, Cook Hill Elementary in Wallingford, offered Kidsmarathon as an after-school activity.

"One of the things I love is that we have kids of every ability level in the program," physical education teacher Kim Wartschow said. Activities and games that emphasize healthy eating and healthy lifestyles are also part of the program, she added.

One of the Kidsmarathon participants at Cook Hill, fifth-grader Lily Verna, said her eating habits have improved as a result.

"I was eating more junk food before, and now I'm eating more fruits and vegetables," she said.

j.benson@theday.com

BY THE NUMBERS

• Adolescents and children should get one hour or more of physical activity daily.

• The average 6- to 11-year-old watches three to four hours of television daily. That doesn't include the time spent playing video games, surfing the computer and in other sedentary activities.

• Fewer than 25 percent of children get at least 20 minutes of physical activity daily.

• Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, with almost 20 percent of children weighing 20 percent or more over their ideal weight.

• An obese teenager has a better than 75 percent chance of becoming an obese adult.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, Kidsmarathon Training Guide

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