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Shaler students reap big rewards from Active Schools program

Eighth-grader Morgan Burke noticed something different this year: She no longer was falling asleep in her classes.

She credits the 30 minutes a day of physical activity required of her and her classmates at Shaler Area Middle School.

"The exercise keeps me more focused and alert during class," said Burke, 14.

Last week, state Secretary of Health Everette James and Steelers legend Franco Harris visited Burke's school to applaud officials and students for taking part in the Department of Health's Active Schools grant program.

Students did push-ups, practiced stretching techniques and tossed balls back and forth in the auditorium in celebration of the event and the school's $15,000 grant for their yearlong commitment to exercise.

The school received $5,000 from the state and $10,000 from UPMC Health, a regional organization that agreed to support the Active Schools program.

"Teachers have noticed a change in the students since the start of the program: an improvement in scores, an increase in energy," Principal Eloise Groegler said. "I'm even seeing (fewer) kids in the principal's office lately."

The Active Schools grants went to the 40 schools showing the strongest commitment to fitness, including five middle schools in Allegheny County, one in Beaver County, one in Butler County and one in Fayette County.

"It's good for all the kids -- how they sleep, how they feel about themselves, how they do in class," James said. "Chronic diseases caused by obesity are more prominent than ever today, and 70 percent of our health care costs come from chronic diseases.

"We'll never reduce the cost of our health care if we can't reduce chronic disease at the root."

Shaler Area Middle School offers a Zumba class, a fully equipped cardio room, several new machines for the weight room and a yoga club.

As part of the program, all students had to take gym as a class and were tested in activities such as sit-ups, push-ups and the mile run at the beginning and end of the year, comparing their times in the mile run and the number of sit-ups and push-ups they were able to complete.

"The misunderstanding of the importance of physical activity and nutrition is beginning to slow down progress in the community and the country," said Michael Culyba, vice president of medical affairs for UPMC Health Plan. "If we don't turn the corner with programs like this, we're going to fall behind."

James hopes eventually to see federal guidelines on students' fitness, but does not want to wait for that to happen.

"We can no longer wait," he said. "The cost of the lack of physical activity is starting to hurt our country's progress."

Until then, he hopes the Active Schools program will spread to other states as he implements it for 40 new Pennsylvania schools for the 2010-11 school year.

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