On the run for fitness, weight loss, good health

Exercise program gets kids off the couch and into shape

November 13, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Dana Daniels started introducing healthier foods to her family a year ago when she noticed that her two younger sons were starting to put on a little weight.

The Daniels family always had been active during the summer, going for walks along Bay Ridge beach and swimming in the Anchorage community pool in Annapolis. Once school started in the fall, it seemed impossible to tear her sons away from the TV or the couch, she said.

"Getting them out in the cooler months is a little harder to do," Daniels said.

When her 8-year-old son, Grant, brought home a flier for an after-school running club at Annapolis Elementary School, she jumped at the chance to sign him up. "He was starting to get a little tummy on him," Daniels said.

The Mighty Milers, a six-week running program, aims to get children to run a mile in less than 10 minutes. Germantown Elementary School offered the pilot program in April to 22 students in third through fifth grades. This fall, with the help of a grant, the program expanded to Annapolis, Hillsmere and West Annapolis elementary schools. Each school was allowed to sign up 25 to 30 students. Organizers estimate they have about 100 children involved.

The program finishes up from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Saturday with a one-mile run around the Annapolis High School track as well as relays. High school students on the track and cross-country teams will talk to the children about high school athletics.

The program was the brainchild of Jennifer Bistrack, the community health coordinator for the Annapolis Recreation and Parks Department. Part of her job is to find ways to prevent chronic diseases in the community through physical activity and good nutrition, she said. With childhood obesity rising, she began looking for funding to start the club.

The number of overweight children has more than tripled during the past three decades, according to the Office of the Surgeon General. Health officials estimate that 12.5 million American children and adolescents - more than 17 percent of those age 2 to 19 years - are overweight. The Anne Arundel County Department of Health estimates that 36 percent of all county residents are overweight.

Overweight children are at greater risk for many serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. Bistrack estimates between 40 percent and 50 percent of students participating in the running program this fall have weight problems.

Last spring, the Parent Teacher Association at Germantown Elementary raised money to buy healthful snacks and medals for the runners. This fall, Bistrack got a $5,000 grant from the Rathmann Family Foundation for the expansion of the program. The Arnold-based organization donates money to education, the arts, children and youth health organizations, and environmental preservation.

The money was used to buy T-shirts, running shoes for children who needed them, and snacks to eat after the runs. Bistrack enlisted the help of volunteers from the Annapolis Striders, the Annapolis Athletic Club, the Annapolis Triathlon Club and the Pediatric Group at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

Volunteers supervised practice runs twice a week and taught the children how to stretch before exercising. They also worked on building up strength in core muscle groups, Bistrack said. The Pediatric Group taught the children about how their heart functions during exercise and how to keep it healthy.

Anne Arundel Medical Center staff visited the schools to test the students' resting, training and recovery heart rates and their blood pressure. Four of the approximately 100 children participating had high blood pressure, said Ashley DeStefano, the health educator in the Community Health and Wellness Department at the medical center.

DeStefano said the medical center also asked students how often they watched TV or played video games and how often they exercised. Most of the students said they had more than two hours of "screen time" every day - exceeding the guideline recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the surgeon general.

According to results, 41 percent of the students said they exercised at least 60 minutes a day, five days a week, meeting the goal set by health officials. The rest of the students said they exercised 60 minutes a day from one to four days a week.

Bistrack, who wants to make Mighty Milers an annual program, said her goal was to associate exercise with fun. Each child who completed five miles during or after training exercises could earn a charm to put on a bracelet. Students turned in logs, signed by parents.

Because there is no track at Annapolis Elementary School, students ran on the streets of Annapolis, under the supervision of runners from the running clubs. Daniels said her son Grant loved running across the drawbridge from Annapolis to Eastport.

Daniels said she hopes her son continues to run on his own. Already he is fit enough to go along with his parents and enjoy weekend bike rides through Quiet Waters Park.

"It has just really enhanced his life," Daniels said.


Parents can serve as role models for children by exercising and eating more healthfully. Here are some tips for a healthier household:

* Reduce "screen time" - playing video games or watching TV - to less than two hours a day.

* Encourage an hour of physical activity or play every day.

* Make sure your child eats a healthy breakfast.

* Buy more fruits, vegetables and healthy grains for your family to eat. Eliminate soft drinks at home.

* Make sure your child gets enough sleep at night. A recent study found that with each extra hour of sleep, the risk of a child's being overweight or obese dropped by 9 percent.

Source: Office of the Surgeon General, www.surgeongeneral.gov/obesityprevention

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