Doing physical exercises before spelling and math exercises

Fourth-graders (from left) Makenzie Thompson, Reagan Lloyd and Jayda Smith use exercise bands in a program after school at Stonewall Tell Elementary School, Sept. 9, 2013, in College Park, Ga. Stonewall's exercise program is not new, but it just won a gold award from the state for its efforts to get kids moving and be healthy. Photo: Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

ATLANTA — Officials in Georgia had an urgent plea as the school year neared its close last April. They asked schools to add 30 minutes of exercise into the day.

They sent a letter to school superintendents. It pointed out that only 16 percent of the state’s students had passed five tests of physical fitness. The tests measured flexibility, weight, and how well students can run without getting tired, and how many push-ups and curl-ups they can do.

One in five students was unable to pass any of the tests.

Many children in the state are obese — that is, very overweight. They are also weak. So the message was simple: Find a way to get kids moving more.

Yoga Before First Bell

But the schools could not replace gym class or recess. They were asked to come up with new exercises that could be worked into the daily schedule.

Georgia schools have responded: More than 100 have added 30 or more minutes of new exercises. These include yoga classes before the first bell rings to walking and running clubs after school. They even include 10-minute exercise breaks at students' desks.

At Stonewall Tell Elementary in College Park, physical education (PE) teacher Lisa Sinon is getting pedometers for every student. These measure how much kids walk. They will be used to encourage the students to take 10,000 steps every day.

Huntley Hills Elementary School is one of the schools adding new exercises. It offers a morning program called “Tiger Tune Up.” Kids play in the gym before class starts, using everything from hula hoops to plastic balls. On “Walking Wednesdays,” phys ed teacher Elisabeth Spaulding plays music while the students walk laps inside the gym.

But it’s a new after-school bike program on Thursdays that has kids asking, “Is it Thursday yet?” They ask this every day.

Biking For Health

Some kids bring their bikes to school. Spaulding also bought 10 bikes for kids who did not have one. She lets kids ride around an empty parking lot or field by the school.

Kids not only worked up a sweat. A handful, including several fifth-graders, learned how to ride a bike through the program.

Exercise is also given a lot of attention at Stonewall Tell. The school is one of 51 across the state that recently received a gold SHAPE Honor Roll medal. The award is given as part of a program that helps fight against childhood obesity.

PE teacher Sinon has come up with several fun and healthy activities, including an annual family fitness night. Children and their parents climb rocks and sample tasty three-bean salads.

Sinon wants to make sure kids have fun in gym class. She often brings out a cart with plastic balls and lets kids develop their own games.

A group of youngsters recently came up with a game called “Diary of a Wimpy Kid tag.” They named it after the popular children’s book series. Now the kids play the game at recess.

Faster Homework Through Exercise

Sinon is not the only one who is trying to encourage healthy living. Other teachers, principals and even parents help keep junk food out of school. For example, cupcakes are not allowed, even on birthdays.

“If a parent brings cupcakes, he or she will be stopped at the front desk,” said Sinon. “But what is happening is parents are bringing beautiful and delicious fruit platters. And the kids like them.”

Exercise is a way to reduce obesity. But there may be another good thing about it: Children who exercise seem to do better in school.

Take Makenzie Thompson, a fourth-grader at Stonewall Tell Elementary School. She has noticed that exercising is making a difference.

“If I exercise after school and then do my homework, it only takes me 30 minutes,” she said. “But if I don’t exercise and just go directly to do my homework, it takes me an hour.”

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