Students in the Riverhead School District‘s elementary schools aren’t getting through their physical education classes these days with just a few lazy jumping jacks or an easy stroll around a track.
Instead you’ll find these pre-teens working their bodies with sit-ups, pull-ups and weighted hula hoops while exercising their minds by racing one another to answer math problems and competing to piece together a replica of the human skeleton.
The Riverhead students are the first in New York State to participate in a physical education curriculum created by Project Fit America, a nonprofit dedicated to getting kids in shape by fostering a love of fitness at an early age.
The program provides schools with state-of-the-art outdoor and indoor fitness equipment and teacher training, allowing instructors to put away the kickballs and encourage exercise in other ways that are both more intense and fun.
Project Fit America was designed to help students find “their fitness self,” said its executive director, Stacey Cook
“Everyone of us has an inner athlete, a fitness activity we’re good at,” she said. “We want the kids to find that magic.”
The child obesity rate in America has more than doubled since 1980, with a third of all children and adolescents now considered overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
While getting kids in better shape helps reduce their chances of developing obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it can also improve learning ability and build self-esteem, Cook said.
“Physical fitness doesn’t make you smarter, but it does prepare your brain to fire on all cylinders,” she said. “Data shows that active kids are better learners.”
The program, which has been introduced in 43 states nationwide, was brought to Riverhead’s five elementary schools during the 2013-14 school year. It was made possible through grants from PBMC Health, the Suffolk County Lions Diabetes Education Foundation and Brickman Group landscaping and turf maintenance.
“It provides a way to take fitness and make it a multi-faceted unit,” said Bill Groth, director of athletics, physical education and health for the Riverhead Central School District.
The program couples exercise with an understanding of math, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, he said. One of his favorite lessons, he added, pits teams against one another to construct the human skeleton out of laminated bones.
“To get to a bone you have to do a series of fitness skills,” he explained, noting that communication and teamwork are key to completing the assembly properly.
To measure individual improvement over time, students are tested on their physical capabilities at the start of the year and again at the finish, according to Cook.
Having a starting point allows students to compete against themselves, Cook said, adding that each school tracks its students’ improvement on bulletin boards using bronze, silver and gold stars.
And, based on the numbers, the program works.
During the district’s kickoff celebration for the program in October, Superintendent Nancy Carney noted that “pre- and post-test outcomes from other participating schools show a 41 percent increase in upper body strength, 19 percent increase in abdominal strength and 14 percent increase in cardiovascular endurance.”
Dr. George Ruggiero, a PBMC Health family practitioner who conducts health physicals for children at the schools, said the program’s design will help students develop good habits.
“It’s another step in really trying to make a change in our youth,” he said. “By understanding the entire spectrum of eating better and increasing exercise and activity, they [will] have a tendency to stay healthy through adulthood.”
The PBMC Health Foundation, the hospital’s charitable arm, will reach out to a number of potential funders, as it did with the Lions, in hopes of getting the program into other school districts, according to hospital spokesman Demetrios Kadenas.
“We more than anyone have an obligation to champion the health of our community,” he said.
PBMC Health raised $60,000 in grant funding, which was matched by the Lions. Brinkman covered the $33,000 cost of installing equipment at each of the five schools.
At the end of the 2013-14 school year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the county Department of Health recognized the district for implementing the program with the Community Health Improvement Plan award for its commitment to the student health.
Come October, Project Fit America volunteers will be back at the schools, answering questions and modifying lesson plans.
Physical education teacher Karen Braune, who works at three of the dirstrict’s elementary schools, said she believes the program has helped her grow as an instructor — even after 29 years of teaching.
“It has without a doubt added to our curriculum, especially when it comes to our large classes,” she said. “You can modify the games for the number of students and we have been able to do tons of new stuff.”
This story was originally published in the northforker 2014 Health & Fitness Guide.