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Let's Move

First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, launched in early February, has united families, communities, and constituents in both the public and private sector to come together and combat childhood obesity in America.

Emerging from the No Child Left Behind era, a period of increased pressure on standardized testing, many schools found they were unable to place physical activity at the forefront of their priorities. This campaign, however, emphasizes that physical fitness is equally important for a student’s academic achievement and should not be treated as an expendable block of time. For district leaders, this creates a responsibility to reflect this initiative within their schools and promote healthier lifestyles.

A number of public and private institutions have signed on to advance nutritional and physical education programs within public schools. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents food service programs in more than 75 percent of US schools, has committed itself to improving student education and awareness about the dangers of obesity. Over the next five years, SNA is aiming to have 10,000 schools meet the requirements of the Healthier US School Challenge (HUSSC), a program that recognizes schools that promote healthy environments.

In addition, the Department of Education has been working with Congress to craft a safe and healthy schools fund as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act (ESEA) to support schools with strategies to get kids more active both inside and outside of the classroom. “Part of the initiative is to make our schools healthier places for our kids to learn and grow,” said Michelle Obama in a speech at the National PTA Conference held March 10.

Obama publicized the administration’s goal of updating and strengthening the Child Nutrition Act, investing an additional $10 billion over the next 10 years. A Gallup poll, the “State of Play,” released in February 2010 and sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and Playworks, stated that four out of five principals reported recess as having a positive impact on student achievement, and two out of three principals reported that students listen better after recess. “There are many important physiological aspects of play,” says Gail Connelly, executive director of NAESP. “The movement that occurs enables the brain to be more receptive to learning.”

According to the poll, time allotted for recess appears to be eroding. Half of the principles polled reported that students receive 16 to 30 minutes of recess daily, and one out of five linked annual yearly progress (AYP) testing requirement to a decrease in recess minutes at their school.

“We have been streamlining our focus on reading and math, but there is so much else that is critical to a child’s learning,” says Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “There is a such a short term gain by increasing time to do state testing. Good data shows that a curriculum needs to be broad based by developing those skills in a rich environment. This includes breaks for recess and physical fitness.”

The Alliance for Childhood, an organization that promotes healthy development in children, advocates that extended recess alone may not be enough. Physical education classes should become less structured and parents and teachers should be educated on the importance of free play activities to encourage kids to willingly get moving.

“Organized sports should not be emphasized for younger children,” says Ed Miller, senior researcher at the Alliance for Childhood. “They should have flexible rules and allow for free time. Free play is chosen by children and comes out of their own intrinsic motivation. When they’re engaging in free play they may be exerting themselves more but they’re completely unconscious of it because they’re so thrilled by what they’re doing.”

The Let’s Move campaign states that obesity rates have tripled within the last 30 years with one-third of U.S. children facing excessive weight issues. Aiming high, the campaign hopes to curb childhood obesity within one generation. “I think it’s ambitious,” says Bryant. “But if you’re not ambitious, you’ll never get there.”