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In the dead of winter this year, the children of McGregor, Minnesota, embarked on a walk down the Mississippi River, covering 945 of the waterway's 2552 miles - without leaving their elementary school.
The trek itself took place on paper, but the school's 275 1st-through-6th graders did physically log the miles as part of a month of added focus on physical activity and nutrition known as Fitness Fever.
The program, which will mark its ninth year in February, is at the forefront of Minnesota school efforts to head off obesity among children. Last year, some 240,000 students at 700 elementary schools took part.
Another longtime fitness campaign, Jump Rope for Heart, saw 418 Minnesota schools and approximately 168,000 students participate last year, according to the American Heart Association. The fund-raising event, which pulled in $1.1 million in Minnesota and $57 million nationwide last year for heart disease and stroke prevention initiatives, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.
Founders of Fitness Fever, which include state agencies and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, established the program to get students excited about exercise and healthy eating through themed activities like taste-testing of exotic fruits.
"We recognized early on that you had to create this so that kids would be engaged and not see this as something they were forced to do," said Dan Johnson, director of community affairs for Blue Cross, who was involved in crafting the program. "We think we broke the mold of the old health education programs in that respect."
Physical fitness advocacy groups applaud Fitness Fever, but say there's much more to do to keep youth from falling into sedentary lifestyles. Johnson agrees.
The 2001 Minnesota Student Survey - given to 133,632 students in 6th, 9th and 12th grades - documented a drop-off in the frequency of exercise as children got older. For example, 23% of 6th-grade boys said they were involved in at least 20 minutes of activities a day that made them sweat or breathe hard, a figure that fell to 19% in 9th grade and 13% for male students in their senior year.
One possible explanation is that gym class tends to be a yearly requirement in the lower grades and sometimes an elective in high school.
Minnesota's new academic standards require school districts to offer courses in health and physical education, although local leaders are free to set their own expectations for student participation.
Several states require written or skills tests, or both, at elementary through high school levels.
In California, for instance, all public schools must administer fitness tests to fifth, seventh and ninth graders that measure cardiovascular endurance, body fat, abdominal strength, upper body strength and flexibility.
In 2002, California education officials cross-referenced the results of a test they call the Fitnessgram with reading and math test scores. They found scores on the academic exams were noticeably higher among students who achieved the most fitness goals.
Murray Harber is among those who would like to see Minnesota schools pay greater attention to physical education. Harber is chairman of the board of Be Active Minnesota, a relatively new coalition of health-oriented organizations.
"We think physical education shouldn't replace a math or a science, but it should be right up there with it," Harber said.
With Fitness Fever, academics and physical activity go hand-in-hand, said Brenda Hadrich, a gym teacher in McGregor, which is midway between Brainerd and Duluth.
McGregor's river walk - where student steps in gym class were collectively recorded with pedometers - was tied in with classroom lessons about the human body and a lunchroom push on fruits and vegetables. Hadrich tracked their progress on a map. Teachers also kept track of their own school-day steps, which took them further than the students: 1782 miles down the river.
In addition, every piece of fruit or vegetable a child ate at home or at school earned them an entry into a weekly drawing, where prizes like mini-basketballs and jump ropes also carried through on the get-fit theme. Hadrich said one class even traded candy for healthy snacks at their Valentine's Day party.
Lanesboro Elementary School, which has also embraced the program, caps off its month with races and games that fit a given theme. Last year, it was a takeoff from the "Survivor" TV show; this year it was a Jamaican jamboree.
The students, principal Darren Schuler said, "can't wait to see what new events we do every year."
If nothing else, Hadrich credited Fitness Fever with helping to develop healthier eating habits. She said older students often inform her that they've eaten their carrots that day, as she always used to urge them to do.
"It tells me it is kind of sinking in," she said.
Added Schuler: "Health sometimes in school seems like it gets left off the table and we don't focus on it enough. It may be only a month, but at least we focus on it and we make it a priority." This article was prepared by Health & Medicine Week editors from staff and other reports.
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