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December 19, 2011

Michigan afterschool partnership tackles childhood obesity


At South Bendle Elementary School near Flint, Michigan, 80 kindergarten through third-grade students faithfully lace up their gym shoes after school each Tuesday and Thursday, ready to move outdoors in any kind of weather. As members of the school’s popular “running club,” these young athletes are learning healthy habits that hopefully will last a lifetime.

Marilyn Shaski, South Bendle’s longtime school secretary and founder of the running club

Marilyn Shaski, South Bendle's longtime school secretary and founder of the running club

“Life is good when you’re running,” says Marilyn Shaski, South Bendle’s longtime school secretary and founder of the running club. “Some days we play more than we run, but being outside, talking to your friends and maybe taking part in a few relay races — it’s a great way to clear your head and let go of the day’s problems.”

Trisha Cherveny, Bendle’s principal, is an enthusiastic supporter of her building’s afterschool activities — including its CrimFit Youth Program, as the running club is more formally known.

“We’re a K-3 school. At our level, there’s only so much you can put the kids through before they’re ready for some play and physical activity. The running club gives them an outlet for all that energy and gives us an opportunity to teach good health habits early — by using a different, more active learning style than we use in the classroom.”

The school’s partnership with the local Crim Fitness Foundation, which operates a countywide network of adult and youth fitness activities at elementary and middle schools, helps fortify South Bendle’s afterschool offerings, Cherveny said. Since 2008, the Mott Foundation has provided $675,700 to increase the Crim’s capacity to provide health and physical fitness programs in local schools.

Cherveny hopes to expand the running club to parents and community members by installing a paved track around the perimeter of the school’s playground.

“Installing a track that is accessible to everyone and brings people here to the school — that is our ultimate goal.”
Since the 1970’s, the obesity rate for children 6 to 11 years old has tripled in Michigan. Nearly 19 percent of that age group is overweight or obese, according to the University of Michigan’s Prevention and Research Center, which works to track and improve the health of children and youth in partnership with families and communities.

Like many districts across Michigan, Bendle has become increasingly concerned about the effects of childhood obesity on students’ ability to develop socially and academically.
“The running club provides an opportunity to introduce our kids to exercise — and the basics of good nutrition,” says Shaski, who began running 10 years ago. “It’s not a formal thing — but as we run, or skip or walk, we talk about what is good to eat and what’s not so good to eat. I try to plant that seed early on.”

Complete Runner staff lending support with discounted gym shoes and fittings for students at South Bendle.Complete Runner staff lending support with discounted gym shoes and fittings for students at South Bendle.
South Bendle’s running club is “a really good example of a consistently excellent program,” said Erin Lamb, Youth Program director for the Crim Fitness Foundation, which partners with 49 elementary schools throughout Genesee County to supplement physical education programming during the school day as well as before and after school.

“A number of schools have been forced to cut back on their P.E. classes and some have eliminated recess, so they look to us to find ways to get students moving — whether it’s starting a running club after school or training teachers how to introduce short activity breaks during regular school hours,” she said.
“We encourage schools to do whatever works for them and their students — and we’re tracking the interventions that are most effective.”

Among the most promising indicators of CrimFit Youth Program's first-year evaluation is a link between increased physical activity and higher scores in math and reading, says Lamb.

“We’re very interested in understanding what interventions stay with students,” she said of Crim’s efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of their programming. To that end, the Crim Fitness Foundation also is collaborating with Flint Community Schools to conduct a longitudinal study of fourth, fifth and sixth grade students to determine whether the habits developed through participation in CrimFit programs stay with them through middle school.

“I’ve had several parents tell me that the running club is making a difference for their children,” said Shaski, adding that one child reportedly was able to use an inhaler less frequently after joining the running club.

Shaski believes her runners get psychological benefits from participating in the club as well.

“It helps them develop discipline and patience — one of my larger kids was kind of frustrated that he works so hard — he gives 150 percent — but never comes in first. But he keeps coming every Tuesday and Thursday.”