At Flint Hill Elementary School in Vienna, Va., children often arrive about a half-hour early to run laps around the playground. The motivation for this unusual activity? A school-wide goal of logging 25,000 miles this year and the opportunity for participants to earn brightly colored toe-shaped tokens that have become a big hit among the grade-school crowd.
In Gaithersburg, Md., youngsters who attend the city's free, after-school programs engage in noncompetitive games that involve students of all athletic skills. At some Fairfax County, Va., middle schools, children wear monitors to track their pulses throughout the day, and they then download the data into a computer to study which activities raise heart rates most.
Throughout the country, researchers, educators, parents and public health officials are searching for innovative ways to get children up and moving. Study after study underscores the importance of physical activity in childhood: It helps lay the foundation for a lifetime of good physical health. Some studies have also suggested that it may help improve concentration.
Regular daily exercise can also help counteract the steady rise in obesity among children in this country, where 20 percent are considered overweight.
Another benefit is undermining the accompanying health problems that plague the nation, including rising numbers of type 2 diabetes, a condition that was once seen only in adulthood.
"Moving more is the solution to children's obesity," said Judy Young, executive director of the National Association of Physical Activity and Sports (NASPE), in Reston, Va. "It's much better to increase physical activity than to have growing kids on restrictive diets and cutting calories and things like that."
At the same time, increased homework, concerns about neighborhood safety, limited family time and the strong lure of such sedentary activities as video games, television and computers make it harder to keep children active. NASPE recommends that all youngsters get at least 60 minutes of daily exercise.
"Even for those who still enjoy physical activity, physical education programs and facilities are increasingly scarce in the schools," noted Barbara Moore, executive director of Shape-Up America! in a recent speech at a childhood obesity conference sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. "Moreover, sidewalks and parks in the community are absent or unvailable for recreational purposes."
For this reason, educators are turning to activities that are designed to give children a lifelong joy of motion -- with less of an emphasis on excelling at a particular sport or using the latest exercise equipment.
"We're right on the edge of changing our physical education curriculum to reflect more of a 'wellness' and fitness approach," said Mary Marks, health and physical education instructional coordinator for Fairfax County Schools. "We won't eliminate sports, but we want to make 'wellness' the issue and sports the vehicle to get there."
At the Fit-4-Life program in Fairfax County, children and their families are encouraged to develop healthy lifestyles that incorporate daily physical activities with such habits as wearing a seat belt in the car, donning a helmet before riding a bike, brushing teeth and reading labels on food at the grocery store or trying a new, nutritious food.
While the program is designed for children, it's also encouraged parents to participate with their youngsters in a variety of physical activities. Involving the family seems to be key in getting sedentary children to be more active.
"It has to be a family decision," said Bunny Lancaster, a physical education teacher in Fairfax. "Even if it is only simple things that you might think about as exercise, like getting outside and raking the leaves. Don't pay someone to shovel snow off the drive or wash the car or mow the lawn. Do it together with your children. Get everyone out and involved and make the time to do these things."
Some parents are even taking their children along when they work out at the gym. While many Y's and health clubs offer child care for youngsters, some are now offering special programs that allow parents and children to work out at the same time with their respective age groups.
-- Offer rewards in the form of tokens or points that a child can use toward obtaining something bigger, say a ticket to a sporting event or a theme park. As exercise guru Kenneth Cooper notes in his book "Kid Fitness," adults reward themselves all the time for tasks; why not do it for children?
-- Try a "toy run." Hide inexpensive, tiny plastic toys along a route in your neighborhood. Walk or run with your child to pick up the toys. As endurance increases, add little notes that direct a child to do 10 jumping jacks, five sit-ups or three stretches. In this way, you develop a "par course" for a child.
-- Walk or ride a bike to do some of your weekend errands.
-- Use video aids. Rent inspirational sports movies, such as "The Karate Kid" or "Chariots of Fire" or watch a tennis match or a sporting event together and analyze the play with your child. Then go out and engage in the activity.
-- Think sports themes for birthday parties and other weekend get-togethers. Skating rinks, bowling parties, trips to a park, even miniature golf -- all keep children moving. Source: Kenneth Cooper; the National Association of Physical Activity and Sports