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On track for fitness: Walking club inspires improved health

| Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A new school program has some Valley children going in circles, and they couldn't be happier -- or healthier.

Launched in March by physical education teacher C.A. Kromer and third-grade teacher Vicki Pieranunzi, the Martin Elementary School (New Kensington) Walking Club is being enthusiastically embraced by children and parents.

Students and parents join teachers at 6:30 p.m. Mondays on the Valley High School track to walk, at their own pace, for an hour. Exercise continues in Kromer's gym classes during the week and in informal on-their-own walks after school and on weekends.

The emphasis on a healthier lifestyle and food choices is reinforced in Pieranunzi's classroom.

The club has accumulated 1,600 miles walking since the beginning of April.

"We were talking about ways to get the kids motivated, and this club came out of that," Pieranunzi explains. "We wanted to get the kids to realize exercise can be fun, and it's, hopefully, something they can enjoy with their family. That's why we require parents to come with them on Monday night."

The response has been great, Kromer says. "We average 50 kids, at least 100 people in all, on Mondays," Kromer says. "There are a lot of positive comments. The kids love it. When we announce the weather is bad and we won't be down at the track, they moan and groan about it. Parents tell us at least their kids are walking. They are getting them off the couch."

Principal Lynn Buczynski sees it as a wonderful idea.

"This not only encourages the exercise, which is really nice for some of the kids. But for the kids who are already active, they come with their families, and it makes for a family event. There are not many activities they can do at school that involves kindergarten through third grade."

The club is something in which everyone can be involved. "Everybody can walk and can excel, and they can be proud of what they do. It's not very competitive" Buczynski adds.

She believes the reinforcement the children receive in the classroom and in gym makes the program more effective -- as does encouragement from their fellow students and adults at home.

In gym, the students began with 10 laps and added a lap each time. "We measured the gym, and 33 laps would be a mile," Kromer says. They sing and clap and occasionally walk to music in the gym.

"The idea is to make it fun for them" she explains. "We try to get them moving during the week, just a walk around the block with their parents just to keep them going. We send slips home with them, and if they walk at all at home, their parents mark it on the slip of paper. We give them credit for a mile for every 15 minutes they walk (away from the track). The kids turn it in once a week."

Every five miles earns them a plastic token that is shaped like a foot. The tokens have become the hot, new collector's items at the school.

"They've been having contests to see how many tokens they can get on their tennis shoes," Kromer says. Some students have turned them into necklaces, which they wear proudly.

As of last week, Carly Bonk, 8, of New Kensington, had 18 tokens, representing 90 miles of walking.

"It's fun to go down to the track every Monday and have fun with friends and to walk every day," she says. She enjoys walking around her neighborhood, too.

Her sister, Kelsey Bonk, 8, also has 18 tokens. Kelsey highly recommends the club to other kids.

"It's a good opportunity to try to get exercise, and it's a lot of fun," she says.

Walking in circles on the track isn't boring, either, assures Jessica McDade, 9, "It's a great opportunity to talk with friends," she says. Plus, she adds, she feels healthier.

"When you're talking to your friends, you hardly notice you're walking," Kelsey Bonk says.

"Walking makes me feel good," Chris Trgina, 8, says.

In the midst of the pursuit of fitness, there are sand traps along the way.

"As we walked around the track, we noticed that many of the younger walkers evidently thought the call of the sand pits was a little more inviting than the love of exercise," Pieranunzi, says, laughing. "When we rounded that side of the track, we would call them out and get them moving again."

Some of the students choose to run. "They are in charge of counting their own laps. We leave it up to their honesty. They keep an eye on each other," Pieranunzui says.

Other students who can't make it to the track participate at home.

Buczynski likes the enthusiasm she sees at school.

She recalls the time she overheard Kromer telling the students, "Don't forget; I gave you homework today." "They kind of looked at her funny, because she was a gym teacher assigning homework," Buczynski says. "But, she said, 'Don't forget your homework is to play outside tonight.' " They laughed.

"This is a wonderful little program. We are thrilled with it. The kids love it," she says.

It will continue through the end of school June 5, with plans to resume in the fall. Students will receive Martin School Walking Club T-shirts this week, donated by Custom Printing.

For other schools considering adopting the idea, Kromer says the program is easy to organize. "Just announce it at school, and have everyone meet at the track," she says.

Kromer and Pieranunzi hope the increased activity available in summer will keep the children in motion.

"We are hoping the kids get the idea this is something they can do with their family, and the earlier they make it part of their life, the better off they will be life long. We hope we can get them to understand that and make exercise a habit," Pieranunzi says. "We are starting to see kids becoming more conscious of their physical fitness."

Ultimately, the nationwide challenge of encouraging children to be more physically active, in an era in which technology offers so many opportunities to be sedentary, has to begin with education, Pieranunzi suggests.

"The easiest way for us to do that is get kids educated and start to make them responsible for their own well-being and level of fitness," Pieranunzi says. "Parents don't always have the time to be after the kids as much as they should. If we can instill that awareness in kids themselves, that's our goal."

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