As state legislators consider a bill making recess mandatory for elementary school students, Ithica Elementary School in Villa Rica is one of many schools in west Georgia that is already ahead of the curve when it comes to getting children more active.
Ithica Elementary’s “Morning Movers” program gives students an opportunity to get active before school starts.
“Being a PE teacher, I’m very passionate about getting children moving,” said Ithica Elementary Exploratory Teacher Vicki Parker.
She noted that when students get off the bus or out of the car each morning, they sit in the hallway reading for 40 minutes. Now that they have “Morning Movers,” students can go to the gym where they will find weighted balls, hand weights, jump ropes and yoga mats.
“They come in and they absolutely love it,” said Parker. “It starts at 7:15 [a.m.], but there is a line down the hallway at 7:02 [a.m.]”
One activity that has been a hit simply involves jumping over a stick.
“They’ll run and jump over that thing for 40 minutes solid,” said Parker.
And that’s not all. In March, Ithica Elementary introduced pedometers to two fifth-grade classes. Students check them out during the day and log their steps as part of the “Morning Movers” program.
Parker recently shared the program’s successes during a “Secrets to Enhancing Academic Success” event hosted by Tanner Health System’s Get Healthy, Live Well School Wellness Committee earlier this year.
The committee is part of the Get Healthy, Live Well Coalition, a multi-sector community coalition working to eliminate tobacco use, expand access to healthy food, increase physical activity and reduce chronic disease risks in Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties. The School Wellness Committee is chaired by Dr. Linette Dodson, director of school nutrition for Carrollton City Schools; and Dr. Brian Mosier, chair of the University of West Georgia’s Sport Management, Wellness and Physical Education department. The committee also includes a Safe Routes to School sub-committee chaired by local parents Wendy Alba and Jana Scoville.
“Get Healthy, Live Well is excited to partner with local school officials and parents who are passionate about helping students in west Georgia improve their health and academic performance,” said Denise Taylor, senior vice president and chief community health and brand officer for Tanner.
During the “Secrets to Enhancing Academic Success” event, community leaders discussed ways they can create even more academically successful school environments by uncovering challenges and coming up with solutions that will help students reach their academic potential.
The event’s keynote speaker was Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, MD.
“When we looked at what we ought to do in the state, the number one thing we looked at was childhood obesity because that is the foundation of so many things we do,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “And there was a reason to look.”
In 2009, Georgia ranked second in the nation for childhood obesity. But the state has since improved, ranking 17th in 2012.
“Even though we’ve made great progress, we still have hundreds of thousands in this state who are unhealthy,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.
In 2013, the Georgia departments of education and public health, and HealthMPowers teamed up to create “Power Up for 30,” a voluntary program that encourages every elementary school in Georgia to include an additional 30 minutes of physical activity each day in addition to a physical education class. Get Healthy, Live Well formed key partnerships with local school systems, teaming up to offer Power Up for 30 in Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties. As of August 2016, 881 elementary schools and seven pilot middle schools in Georgia have taken the “Power Up for 30” pledge.
There is strong evidence linking physical activity and academic performance. A 2009 study conducted by the University of Kansas looked at 26 elementary schools that incorporated 90 minutes of physical activity a week during classroom lessons. Over the course of three years, there were significant improvements in academic achievement in math, reading and spelling scores.
There are also short-term benefits, according to data from the University of Illinois, showing the brain activity of 20 students taking the same test. The brain scan of students who had been walking for 20 minutes showed more activity than the one of students who had been sitting quietly.
There is also evidence linking dietary behaviors and academic achievement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), student participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) School Breakfast Program (SBP) is associated with higher grades and standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism and improved memory. But skipping breakfast is associated with decreased alertness, attention and memory among students. Lack of adequate consumption of fruits, vegetables or dairy products is also associated with lower grades among students.
In an effort to assist schools with nutrition education, Get Healthy, Live Well recently rolled out new mobile teaching kitchens for schools in Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties. Kids ‘N the Kitchen, an interactive teaching kitchen pilot program for kindergarten through eighth grade, is Get Healthy, Live Well’s latest initiative designed to help teach students healthy cooking skills and improve their nutrition.
In October, Get Healthy, Live Well began a pilot of the program in partnership with Carrollton City Schools. With Kids ‘N the Kitchen, the Carrollton City Schools Nutrition Program has been able to tie nutrition education to the school’s curriculum standards with classroom visits at Carrollton Elementary School.
Since 2012, the state has seen a decrease the number of students in first through 12th grade with a body mass index (BMI) outside the healthy fitness zone. In 2012, the average BMI for boys and girls was 42 and 41.5 respectively; by 2015, it dropped to 39.7 for both genders.
While the numbers have steadily dropped since 2012, Dr. Fitzgerald noted the average BMI has started to level and there is still much work to be done.
“We cannot level off,” she said. “We must continue to improve and we also must sustain. We want these habits that we’re imparting to our children to be an absolute part of their lives because there is no question that if you eat well and move, you maintain your health and you maintain your ability to be productive throughout your entire life.”
Get Healthy, Live Well is still looking for others in the community to find their passion in helping improve the region’s health. More information about the coalition’s work and ways to participate and contribute are available at GetHealthyLiveWell.org.