Program increases exercise in McDowell County

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A project aims to improve kids' health in southern West Virginia using exercise equipment and by promoting Zumba, Dance Dance Revolution and even Tchoukball.

Since it was founded in January 2013 with funding from the Pittsburgh-based Highmark Foundation, McDowell CHOICES has worked to increase physical activity for the 3,200 public school students in its namesake county.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks McDowell the most unhealthy in a state that overall has some of the worst health indicators in the nation.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson 2014 rankings, which are the most recent available but include data from years prior to 2014, 37 percent of McDowell adults are obese, compared to about a third of West Virginians overall. In McDowell, the adult obesity rate has been trending up.

McDowell's physical inactivity level — the percent of residents age 20 and up who don't exercise in their leisure time — stood at 43 percent in the 2014 rankings, again compared with only about a third for West Virginia as a whole. Part of the reason for those figures may be because only 39 percent of McDowell residents have "adequate access to exercise opportunities," the rankings say, compared with a slight majority of West Virginians overall.

McDowell CHOICES project coordinator Eloise Elliott said Highmark sought out the West Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, where she's a professor, and gave it $75,000 for six months of initial planning in 2013. Highmark donated another $200,000 to implement the program throughout the 2013-14 school year and most of last semester.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has chipped in more than $60,000 to carry on some program initiatives throughout the fall of 2015. McDowell CHOICES has been on break but is getting ready to restart programs in the county soon, Elliott said.

According to periodic reviews throughout the program's initial run, it was able to achieve a goal of getting students at least an hour of daily physical activity in all but one of the McDowell public schools, which Elliott said are community hubs in a county lacking other recreational facilities.

"In terms of just like going to a gym or skating rink or somewhere, that's not very reasonable in McDowell," she said.

Through equipment purchases funded through the Highmark money and other grants the McDowell CHOICES helped procure for schools, students got everything from tricycles and basketballs to table tennis and whiffle ball equipment to Dance Dance Revolution, a common arcade video game in which participants step and jump on different areas of an electronic mat in synch with on-screen directions.

"One school got a climbing wall installed," Elliott said. "It's just a wide variety."

She said a "huge purchase" was archery equipment to establish two shared middle- and high-school programs, one at Mount View High School, which contains grades 6-12, and the other between Sandy River Middle School and River View High School.

In addition to improving each school's existing physical education programs and incorporating recreation into normal academic classrooms, Elliott said each school participated in three after-school programs using such equipment. The programs served about 1,150 students, parents and staff.

Kimball Elementary School got dancing, gymnastics and golf. Middle schoolers at Mount View took part in archery; Zumba, a dance fitness program; and Tchoukball, pronounced "chook ball," a no-contact handball sport invented by a Swiss biologist as an alternative to the aggression he saw in other competitions. Southside K-8 School had taekwondo martial arts and before- and after-school sessions of Dance Dance Revolution.

Other after-school activities included different types of dancing — including ballet, tap and line — baton twirling, volleyball and family walking.

In an October capstone event called Let's Move McDowell, groups of students from each school got to show off either one of their after-school programs or one of their in-school physical education activities to the rest of the district. The event at the Welch Armory, located in the county seat, included more than 500 students and was broadcast live online to schools across the county.

"It gave them some of the publicity, if you will, in showcasing what they were doing," Elliott said. "And all the principals seemed excited about it, and they were already talking about what they were going to do next year."

Anawalt Elementary School danced to "Singing in the Rain" with umbrellas. Southside K-8 performed Michael Jackson's "Thriller," in appropriate Halloween costumes.

Southside Principal Florisha Christian McGuire extolled the program, noting that its workers also helped write a $100,000 grant for exercise equipment and is currently helping the school find funding for a playground there. Southside currently doesn't have one.

McDowell CHOICES is seeking more funding beyond the USDA grant, which Elliott said will pay only for the after-school programs of the first grant, with an increased emphasis on involving families. But funding or not, the program worked to ensure permanence by training locals in how to teach the various courses.

Elliott, who lives in bordering Mercer County, said McDowell, which has become a symbol of rural poverty, often gets a "bad rap." But she found motivated residents there.

"They're very dedicated to improving the health of their students and their families," she said. "They take it very seriously there. They really do."


Information from: The Charleston Gazette,

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