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Childhood Obesity Weighs On Ohio Schools

One-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese. It’s led to more and more kids developing diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Yet the place kids spend a lot of time, school, often lacks physical activity. First Lady Michelle Obama isn’t the first in the White House to focus on child health and wellness. In the 1960s, JFK launched a nationwide public health campaign to get kids in America moving. His administration partnered with ad men to create films showing how schools could build in fitness routines. Today that kind of daily activity may be a reality in some Ohio schools, but for others it’s, at best, an aspiration. Recess isn’t required, and there’s no set amount of time that kids have to be active during the school day. One-half unit, or 120 hours, of P.E. is required for high school graduation, but that can be waived or completed online. And Ohio isn’t alone; only a handful of states require a specific amount of daily activity in school. "Kids are getting minimal exercise in schools. There are inconsistencies in how the schools have provided opportunities for kids to be physically active," says Martha Halko. She works in obesity prevention at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and helps schools figure out how to fit more exercise into the school day. But it’s an uphill battle, against limited funds and competing academic priorities. "There have been school districts that have been supported to be rebuilt without playgrounds," Halko says. Halko and others argue cutting out playgrounds and P.E. is a bad idea. "I think what’s lacking though is the general knowledge base amongst faculty and principals on the true link between physical activity and academic performance. There’s research that shows if children not only eat well—eat breakfast—but are physically active they do better in school," Halko says. Some schools do see the value in this, and they’ve come up with creative ways to get kids moving more. One of them is Brookridge Elementary, in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn. "Ok, show how we do it..." Kindergarteners in Kelly Hvizdos’s class take a quick break from their lesson, and circle round the room to the beat of a special “movementâ€? CD. The kids are pretty into it. Schools should be an national focal point for obesity prevention, says the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit research group. Its 2012 report recommends schools give students time to be physically active during the school day, for a total of 60 minutes. And that extra time pays off: a recent study among fifth graders found more gym time lowers the chance of obesity without harming test scores. Still this may seem like a lot, to administrators juggling other priorities. Brookridge Principal Amy Cruse says the key is finding the right balance. "We certainly do go above and beyond but it’s important and we see that our kids are healthier and making good choices and they can attend and focus better when they’ve had some of that physical release," Cruse says. Brookridge P.E. teacher Denise Sinko is the force behind the school’s health initiatives and works with classroom teachers. She helps them find ways to fit in “activity burstsâ€?—or as she calls them, “10 minute tickers.â€? "You know when you’ve got a class of 28 eight-year-olds just staring at you with blank stares, instead of yelling at them, get ‘em up and get them moving, get the blood flowing, oxygen going to the brain again, and they’ll be more attentive," Sinko says. She got Hvizdos started on the movement CDs; she’s helped classes make up their own dance moves; I even saw a group of 2nd graders doing yoga. Reporter: "It seems like you’re creating a culture change here. Sinko: "I hope so. That’s the plan, that’s the plan. I mean the statistics are for real and I think people are just blowing them off, you know about the obesity rates, and it’s like 'wow.'" Brookridge’s efforts around physical activity will be recognized by the state for the first time this year, on the school report card. Schools will be graded on how well they address certain P.E. standards. But that carries little weight in a school’s overall grade. "Basically it’s just a reporting mechanism—it’s not going to be part of the overall evaluation of the report card or performance of the school district," says Wendy Stoica with the Ohio Department of Education. Still, advocates for a healthier school day say it’s a good start.