Cleveland Students Shoot for their Physical Best

The news about the nation's growing waistline continues. And, as we peruse the headlines, we can't help but notice how closely information hits home. Ohioans are leading the pack. As if that weren't enough, we are discovering that the news is getting worse. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, while adults are losing the battle of the bulge, our children are following in our footsteps.

Today's children may be the first generation in history not expected to live as long as their parents.
Today, 8 million children are overweight. Alarmingly, over the last two decades, the rates for overweight adolescents have tripled. If these trends continue, obesity will overtake smoking as the nation's leading and most costly cause of preventable death.

As bleak as these statistics appear, a ray of hope is appearing on the home front. The Cleveland Municipal School District has its own white knights. The triumvirate comprised of the American Heart Association, Kaiser Permanente and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield has contributed $250,000 for the upcoming year toward the implementation of Physical Best, a program designed by the National Association of Sport Physical Education (NASPE) and proven to help combat childhood and adolescent obesity. The AHA and Kaiser have made extended commitments, as well.

"Our decision to help underwrite the launch of this program is part of our commitment to the community. We see this as a high priority benefiting the children and youth of this area," says Carolyn L. Hightower, vice president of health plan administration and strategy at Kaiser Permanente. "We are serious about this," she adds. "It is exciting dealing with this real issue in Northeast Ohio. It is also reflective of our commitment to the City of Cleveland and the children of this area that we are making a significant investment in their health."

John Jesser, vice president of health-care management at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, echoes her sentiments. "Anthem is trying to support the life and health of the people we serve.

We spend so much time with chronic illness that we believe that starting here is important. We recognize the challenges. Trying to get a child to change his eating habits and exercise is difficult."
Beginning in January 2006, Physical Best will be rolled out in 15 schools. All but one of the schools will introduce it in kindergarten through eighth grade; the other in grades six through nine.

Physical Best is a comprehensive, health-related fitness program developed by physical educators and backed by NASPE. It supports U.S. Government reports as outlined in Healthy People 2010, the Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (2001) and the Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health (1996). Designed to educate, challenge and encourage all children to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes for a healthy and fit life, the goal of the program is to promote regular, enjoyable physical activity, thereby encouraging all children to take charge of their own fitness and health. Its focus is to educate all children regardless of their athletic talent, physical and mental abilities or disabilities.

The program will help students work on maintaining a healthful level of aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, flexibility and body composition. Not designed as a stand-alone program, it will be integrated into the school's physical education program.

There's no question that the introduction of Physical Best into the Cleveland Municipal School District's curriculum is an effort to be applauded, especially considering Ohio is one of two states in the country without physical education standards at the state Department of Education. Consider that while nationwide 16 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are considered overweight, 30.3 percent of Ohio's children fit into that category with another 15.5 percent categorized as obese. In fact, the 2003 Ohio Youth Risk Behavior survey results showed that 32 percent of Ohio kids participated in insufficient physical activity, 59 percent were not enrolled in any physical education classes and 68 percent did not attend physical education classes on a daily basis.

But, there is much more to take into consideration than the physical fitness component of Physical Best. Emerging research in Ohio indicates that increased physical activity may lead to increased performance on state standardized tests. If this is true, school districts like Cleveland with lower socioeconomic status are also the same as those with decreased or eliminated physical activity or physical education. These districts also perform sub-par on state proficiency tests. So the introduction of Physical Best might help not only students' physical but academic performance.

Jon Labbe, physical activity project coordinator for the American Heart Association, brings up another point. "The Cleveland Schools were chosen because they have a district-wide Comprehensive Health Plan in place that incorporates mental health, nutrition, obesity, parents and the community."

He explains that although physical education instructors will be spearheading the program in the pilot year, there will also be considerable support from a wellness committee comprised of parents, teachers and staff. The concept of involving the community and the parents is not something that goes unnoticed by either Physical Best or AOA. Both believe that family involvement, in particular, is critical to the success of the program.

Modeled after a program that has been up and running since 1992 in 15 schools in Louisville, Ky., the Cleveland program will become increasingly more customized with time.

"It's our position that we are investing in the health of the children of the City of Cleveland," says Hightower.

Cleveland can only become the better for it.

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