School's morning workouts  linked to better test scores

Sam Womack jumps rope as part of the morning exercise routine at Sope Creek Elementary in Marietta, Ga. Sope Creek Elementary students run laps, attend a Zumba class and play wall ball and basketball games before school to improve their test scores.

ATLANTA - As the sound system pounds out "Glad You Came" by The Wanted, the doors to the modest gymnasium at Sope Creek Elementary School fly open and children come streaming into the room, racing to take their place among the line dancers.

Suddenly there are 75 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders twisting, bending, lunging and hopping their way through a 20-minute set of dance tunes. When the set ends at 8:15 the children stretch, then head back to class.

There is an obesity epidemic harming American children. Childhood obesity rates are double and triple what they were back in the 1950s, when the President's Council on Youth Fitness was founded. Children are not only fatter, they are weaker.

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A test given to a million schoolchildren in Georgia last year found only 16 percent could pass the most basic fitness requirements while 20 percent couldn't pass a single element of the five-part test, which included push-ups, running and flexibility. "This is a huge problem," said Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia's commissioner of public health.

Fitzgerald said hospitalization of children for obesity-related diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, has increased 300 percent in the past decade.

To fight back, Fitzgerald recommended the state's schools add 30 minutes of exercise every day.

How does it make them feel? "Sweaty!" says a flushed Bryce Cargal, 11, pausing in the hallway after the morning workout.

And alert! "Coach says if we get better cardio then we can learn things better," says Greyson Daly, also 11.

Shawn Maloney, physical education teacher at the Marietta, Ga., school, said the academic payoff of its "Body Shop" and "Sunrise" programs is already evident. "Our test scores have gone up," said Maloney, who helped organize the morning exercise program.

Principal Martha Whalen concurs. "We see a 3 percent increase in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade CRCT scores. They have better attention spans, their learning is better, they have increased memory," she said. Whalen adds that behavioral problems are also down. "You can see everything improves after some exercise."

Behind the desire for better grades in Sope Creek's schoolwide effort to get children moving is another goal that remains unspoken: to save lives.

But Maloney says you can talk about the health crisis all day long and nothing will change. "The same argument has been in play the whole 20 years I've been in the county," he said. "At some point you've got to say, 'maybe we should call some different plays.'" Sope Creek has found a new playbook: Appeal to academics, not health concerns.

Teachers can opt to have their children participate in the Zumba classes, which come right after the pledge of allegiance, while morning announcements are still going on.

Parent volunteer and Zumba instructor Natalie Rogers has taught about 15 routines to the students during their regular PE classes, which they've memorized. The older students help model the dance moves for the younger ones.

"Because it's to music, the kids love it," said Rogers. "They don't realize it's exercise, they think it's just fun." Students can choose either Zumba or a combination of outdoor exercises, including running, push-ups and rope-jumping.

Those who arrive early can take "Body Shop" activities between 7:15 and 7:50, which include "Gotcha" (a basketball shooting game) and "Wall Ball," which is like handball with an over-sized ball. Students in kindergarten through third grade participate in "Kick-Start," with teacher-led aerobics in the classroom or a walk/jog on the school track. Students can also take "brain-breaks" during the course of the day.

Teachers must sacrifice some class time to participate, and not all want to buy in. But, says Maloney, teachers who have two hours to impart instruction will find if they give up a half-hour, they will get even more work done in the 1.5 hours left. And, he said, the line of kids returning from the field "is a whole lot better to work with." Now the state wants to take the success at Sope Creek and replicate it. "They are the model we use," said Commissioner Fitzgerald. "Our plan is to copy it in every single elementary school in Georgia."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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