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Armstrong groups target childhood obesity with exercise

| Monday, July 21, 2014, 12:16 a.m.

Armstrong School District and Healthy Armstrong officials are trying to help elementary school students get more exercise in hopes of steadying and lowering the number of overweight children in the district.

Healthy Armstrong began emphasizing elementary school fitness in 2006, when local pediatricians began reporting more children were coming into school with obesity-related diseases, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

In 2006, a quarter of students enrolling in kindergarten were considered overweight or obese. By 2010, the district saw an 8 percent increase in overweight or obese kindergarten enrollments, said Trisha Brice, project coordinator for Healthy Armstrong.

“We're not sure why this trend happened,” Brice said. “But now, we're focusing on the younger population to see what's causing it, and what we can do to help them.”

Last year, overweight and obese children accounted for about one-third of the district's elementary students, said Devin Lorigan, health and wellness coordinator for Armstrong School District and a physical education teacher at West Hills Primary School.

“The rate is still very high and that's a concern, but I think it's not going higher because more people are becoming more aware,” Lorigan said. “The movement towards having a healthier lifestyle is happening in school, and now the effort is moving toward the home.”

The district is in line with others across the state — the state Department of Health reported about 33 percent of students in kindergarten through sixth grade are considered overweight.

Healthy Armstrong monitors the amount of structured, vigorous physical activity elementary school students get outside of physical education class and recess by measuring “kid minutes.”

“Kid minutes” are the number of children doing an exercise, multiplied by the number of minutes they do it, Brice said. The organization reported students participated in 402,142 minutes of extra exercise in 2006, which grew to 775,767 minutes in 2013, Brice said.

“Our goal is to have the kids become more focused and aware of fitness in school, in hopes that it will eventually turn into a part of their lifestyle,” Brice said. “The schools have worked hard to give them more time, and the district as a whole has really embraced the concept of keeping students active.”

Brice said every minute of exercise counts, and the district has responded to giving children more time in several ways, ranging from school-wide walks, to adding a minute or two of exercise to the end of the morning announcements.

“In most of our elementary schools, a classmate or teacher leads the entire school in a little exercise, like running in place or jumping jacks,” Brice said. “It's a way to get activity in at a time where the kids would normally be inactive.” Lorigan credits the emphasis on elementary health and fitness for holding the line on obese and overweight children in the district. Officials plan to expand their focus to pre-schools and nursery schools to try to get children exercising regularly before entering kindergarten, she added.

Their ultimate goal is to help area children and families establish and maintain healthy lifestyles, which includes regular exercise and healthy eating plans.

“We'd like to see kids not only being healthy and active in school, but also at home,” Lorigan said. “It seems tough for kids and families to eat healthy and exercise with such busy schedules, but we're trying to reach out to help them make it work.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303.

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