Step By Step

To promote healthy living, a program rewards youngsters who, over time, cover the distance of a marathon

January 03, 2008|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

A few rounds in the gym. A jog to school. A lap around a lake.

With a few hundred steps here and a few hundred steps there, about 30 students at Northwood Elementary School are each aiming to log 26.2 miles by spring.

That's a marathon - an entire adult-sized, sweat-producing, medal-earning marathon.

These kids and close to 2,000 others at 15 Baltimore City elementary schools and five Baltimore County schools are working toward that Olympic-sized goal as part of a new program that prods youngsters to change their increasingly sedentary and sometimes dangerously unhealthy ways.

The effort, called Marathon Kids, launched locally last month, and some kids immediately took to the challenge.

"I'm the fastest runner in my class," said Xavier Robinson, a 10-year-old who clocked 1,714 steps on his pedometer during a recent gym class. "I run to school every day."

Kids often respond enthusiastically when given an opportunity to participate in sports, said Kay Morris, founder of the Austin, Texas-based nonprofit Marathon Kids that sponsors the program in Baltimore and five other cities. She said 115,000 kids are involved in the program nationwide this year and many are repeat participants from last year.

They get little prizes for participating, such as stickers and water bottles. And they get a medal after running their last mile on the campus of a local college that agrees to help. Towson University will host Baltimore's kids in April. (Local organizers have to do some fundraising for buses.)

The founders say the program aims to supplement gym class and after-school sports that do a good job involving some kids but can't provide enough activity for everyone. Kidswatching too much television and eating too much fast food have been identified as a national problem. Over time, as children gain too much weight, they can develop diabetes and other maladies once thought of as adult problems.

"Think of the kid who is not a joiner," Morris said. "The 26 miles will be a challenge for some, but they will get a terrific sense of completion they've probably never had, and maybe, a lifelong exercise habit."

Morris chooses cities for the program that have higher rates of poverty and usually higher rates of obesity to match. Baltimore fit the bill. But so did a lot of other places. She said she picked the city after being hounded by the owner of a local running store.

Josh Levinson, owner of Charm City Run in Timonium, said he saw a big need for more physical activity in his hometown of Baltimore. And running, he says, is a sport in which everyone can participate no matter their income or athleticism.

"Maybe we are dreaming, but if we don't, our public health crisis has already won," he said. "And that thought is unimaginable for me. [Marathon Kids] should be in every school."

Indeed, the need in Baltimore is great, according to the city Health Department, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 37 percent of city public high-school students were overweight or at risk of being overweight in 2005, compared with 29 percent of students in the rest of Maryland and around the country. The gap narrowed, but was still significant, when looking at only the African-American population of students: 37.5 were overweight in Baltimore, versus 35.2 percent in all of Maryland.

Among children ages 2, 3 and 4 and enrolled in a food-assistance program for women and children, 27.6 percent were overweight or at risk. That compares to the national average of up to 16 percent.

Richard Matens, assistant city health commissioner for chronic disease prevention, says two local panels have been studying the issue. One is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and coordinated by the Associated Black Charities and the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. The other is sponsored by City Councilwoman Agnes Welch and is expected to report this month on ways to make a dent in the problem in schools, restaurants and elsewhere.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, said unless the trends are reversed, more kids will develop lifelong health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

"It's certainly an urgent problem in Baltimore," Sharfstein said.

Already, public schools are working to offer more in-class and after-class opportunities to the 82,000 kids in city schools, but funding is not unlimited, said Jessica Ivey, coordinator of athletics for the city schools. Depending on the school, kids have gym class one to three times a week.

She said students respond when given a chance to participate in sports. Recently, 700 middle-schoolers signed up for an after-school basketball program. And 2,000 signed up for Marathon Kids after physical education teachers were asked to take on the extra program.

Anthony Foderaro, the gym teacher at Northwood Elementary in North Baltimore, said he saw it as a chance to inspire his kids to do something active on the six days a week he doesn't see them.

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