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The ABC's of good health; Local schools make the grade with fitness initiatives to get kids exercising, eating right

Joel Hare is a third-grader whose favorite subject is gym.

At age 11, Makenna Gritzmacher of Newfane knows exercise helps her to listen better and to work harder.

Jeremy Chesterfield, meanwhile, gets fit outdoors.

"I carry wood to the wood stock for next winter," said the fifth-grader at St. Peter North Ridge Lutheran School in Cambria. "We either chop up the wood and burn it in our house or burn it outside, and I help my dad fix the truck."

Together the three children helped their school win a "Fitness for Kids Challenge," a communitywide initiative sponsored by Independent Health Foundation to combat the rising rates of obesity in children. The program, in its third year, encourages elementary school children throughout the eight counties of Western New York to be active and make good nutrition choices.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of children and adolescents -- 25 million youth -- are obese or overweight. As with adults, those extra pounds can put children at greater risk of developing debilitating diseases, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

This skyrocketing pediatric obesity rate has drawn the attention of first lady Michelle Obama and spurred the nation into action.

Local programs like Fitness for Kids Challenge, Fun 2B Fit from Univera Health Care and the Good Health Club Physician Toolkit from BlueCross/BlueShield are in the fight to end pediatric obesity.

Nationally, Obama's "Let's Move" (letsmove.gov) aims to change the way people think about their health. Individual states have adopted versions of the plan, like Maine's "Let's Go."

According to the CDC, one of every three children born in 2000 could develop diabetes during their lifetime. Obesity among children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, going from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006.

>School programs

A decade ago Fitness for Kids was a 10-week plan for after-school programs and community centers, but according to Carrie Meyer of Independent Health Foundation: "We only could involve 10 to 20 children at a time, so we decided to broaden our initiative."

This year, 15,000 students from 100 schools and seven community centers are involved in the programs, logging fitness activities and submitting their completed logs. The program's website -- www.fitnessforkidschallenge.com -- lists fitness and nutrition challenges, and offers a handful of computer games.

Critical to the program are school coordinators such as band director Ann Dolce from Panama Central School in Chautauqua County, who oversees the program. A runner, Dolce has invited faculty members to board the fitness train.

"We're asking the kids to do this, but what about the teachers?" asked Dolce. "Last year the faculty participated in a pound-for-pound challenge. We lost a total of 252 pounds."

Dolce, who will run the Cleveland half-marathon in May, says the school has refilled its vending machines so they fit nutrition guidelines. She said, "We talk to the kids all the time about making healthy choices. They really like the way they feel after making those choices."

Schools are rated on their percentage of participation, and a high ranking makes them eligible for $1,000 awards to enhance their programs. Of the 297 children in grades Pre-K though 6 at Panama Central, 99 percent are engaged, according to Dolce.

"I'm kind of over the top," she said, "so I'll ask them if they're drinking milk every day or riding their bike. They realize when they are watching too much TV. When you get to the kids young, good habits can be made for life."

To date, Fitness for Kids has awarded $20,000 in grant money. Panama Central purchased two outdoor basketball goals. St. Peter North Ridge Lutheran School earned an interactive assembly of fitness for its 42 students.

>Working together

"Reducing pediatric obesity is a challenge that depends on partnerships," said Patricia Smith, CEO and president of the Alliance of Community Health Plans. The Washington-based organization represents 21 community health plans including Independent Health. "Partnerships are with the kids themselves, but also with their parents, schools, health care providers, and even local businesses and governments."

Those partnerships spread the word of good health among children in entertaining ways.

A 25-minute motivational play produced by Theatre of Youth and performed at 27 schools planted healthy habits that continue today, according to Meg Quinn, artistic director of TOY.

"How the Fitness Kids Got Fit" was written by Quinn with a musical score composed by her husband, Chester Popiolkowski. It is one of a handful of theatrical presentations funded by Independent Health that send the message of good health to children.

"We are good at getting kids' attention," said Quinn, whose theater company is celebrating its 40th year. "It was a way of keeping the kids motivated and excited about the program. You can tell kids about calories, but they don't know what calories are. We translated everything theatrically."

In Quinn's world, calories become poker chips that are magically transformed into cookie dough that ultimately become stuck inside human arteries. And a two-minute aerobic dance exercise -- taken from the play, transferred to a DVD and distributed to schools -- became the way students at Our Lady of Pompeii start their day.

"We do it three times a week at 7:50 in the morning," said Jane Quiram, athletic director of the Lancaster elementary school. "First you breathe and then you swim. It gets your heart going, I'll tell you that."

Other community partners include the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, which last year created a fitness scavenger hunt that was promoted to schoolchildren. It involved physical challenges -- like climbing and counting steps -- to locate objects in the Central Library. Children could claim their prizes at the library's Kid's Corner.

Student athletes from Canisius College and Niagara University have conducted sports clinics at six schools to demonstrate safe ways for young children to stay active.

"We have a desire to keep communities healthy," said Smith of Alliance of Community Health Plans. "To reduce obesity, the best place to start is with kids. Once we're older, it's harder to change those habits."

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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