Why 500 elementary school youth in Coeur d'Alene didn't stop running

To be honest, Shelly Johnson, University of Idaho Extension educator in Kootenai County’s Coeur d’Alene office, was a little shocked when the entire student body at Hayden Meadows Elementary School not only signed up for a pedometer program she initiated with the school’s PTA, but they stuck with the program and even cheered when one prize “was an extra hour of PE.”

“The enthusiasm and persistence of these children amazed me,” says Johnson, who has run plenty of “get healthy” workshops for people of all ages in Kootenai County during her years as UI Extension educator. “The kids ate it up. And so did many of their teachers and parents who came to school to run with them during recess, after school, and on weekends.”

For five weeks last April and May, all 1st through 5th graders wore pedometers Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday, logging their steps, thanks to a grant from Coeur d’Alene’s annual Ironman-World Triathlon Competition that funded weekly incentives and some of the pedometers. Called the Run/Walk for Fun Pedometer Fitness Challenge, entire classes of students competed within their grade level for most steps and were rewarded with additional Physical Education time plus colored tokens and charms for bracelets.

Average steps increased by 2,787 a day

Daily steps increased from an average 9,087 steps during the first week of the program per 6.5-hour school day to 11,874 steps during the 5th week —up 2,787 steps, said Johnson. An all-school assembly ending the 5-week challenge included a banner heralding total steps taken by the entire student body —72,753,908. Johnson quoted a Preventive Medicine study that recommends 12-year-old girls complete 12,000 steps a day and boys 15,000 steps to maintain an ideal Body Mass Index.

But students didn’t want to quit after five weeks, “so we kept on,” said Marissa Feeley, 2nd grade teacher. “A lot of the kids became much more active during recess, even setting up their own mini competitions with friends. We tied it into math as well, adding their steps, predicting, graphing.”

Principal Lisa Pica described the place as “buzzing. They were so much more active than I’ve seen them before. Kids you wouldn’t see being physical were taking greater risks and talking about how important it is to be healthy. I hadn’t heard those conversations among the students before.”

Local celebrity athletes joined in

Coeur d’Alene Ironman Finishers also got in on the fun. “I must have run 5 miles around the school ground that day,” laughs Suzanne Endsley, Kootenai County’s top female triathlete who has competed in the grueling 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run numerous times. The Hayden Meadows school event “was one of the best days I’ve ever had because I got to share my personal love for this sport with so many young and enthusiastic kids,” added Endsley.  More than 20 Ironman competitors who finished the Coeur d’Alene event came to Hayden Meadows to work out with the children and encourage their efforts, too.

Schools a battleground to reduce childhood obesity

“Improving fitness and reducing obesity was the objective,” said Johnson, concerned by a recent Idaho State Department of Education survey of Idaho’s school children showing 29 percent of them are overweight or obese. “Schools present a key battleground in the fight for a healthier generation,” said Johnson, “and it will take a unified effort to effect lasting change. It’s also a priority for UI Extension educators.”

To encourage enthusiasm, students invited teachers and school administrators to run with them some recesses, and invited parents other days. “My best friend and I set a goal every day to run during our lunch recess around the big field!,” one 2nd grade girl said in written comments. “Last week we ran 8 laps—that’s 4 miles!”

Will the competition continue in 2014?  “Absolutely!” said Principal Lisa Pica. “We’ll probably start in April.”

For more information, contact Shelly Johnson at sjohnson@uidaho.edu.

Fitness Challenge C d'A students
Triathlete Suzanne Endsley, Coeur d’Alene, poses for a photo after sharing running tips with Hayden Meadow School students who participated in a school-wide pedometer challenge towards fitness.  Photo by Shelly Johnson