December 21st, 2010

The Great River Foundation, which is affiliated with Great River Health Systems, has been awarded a two-year grant from the Wellmark Foundation to help fight childhood obesity. The funding will be used to begin a new school-based exercise program at two Burlington elementary schools.

In 2009, the Burlington Community School District calculated the body mass index of incoming kindergarteners and second graders at four of its five elementary schools. Nearly 30 percent of the children were obese.

Obese children are being treated for diseases that once were seen only in adults. People who are obese have greater risks for arthritis, certain cancers, heart disease, lung problems, sleep apnea, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems. Besides health problems, the emotional and economic consequences of obesity include feelings of rejection, shame and depression, and discrimination and prejudice.

The exercise program, Playworks®, supports learning by providing safe and inclusive physical activity to schools at recess. Trained recess coaches lead daily individual and group games, and children choose which games to play. Besides increasing physical activity, the program helps children learn how to resolve conflicts, cooperate, handle competition, and feel physically and emotionally safer on the playground.

Playworks is being used at hundreds of schools across the country.

“This is a great program for Great River Health Systems to support,” said President and CEO Mark Richardson. “Childhood obesity has become a significant health risk. Through this program, we hope to make a significant difference in the Burlington community.”

The budget for implementing Playworks at Corse and North Hill elementary schools is about $78,000. The $49,639.73 grant will be accompanied by a nearly $29,000 contribution in services provided by Great River Health Systems.

“We are grateful to Great River Health Systems and the Wellmark Foundation for implementing Playworks,” said Burlington Community School District Superintendent Jane Evans. “Exercise promotes optimal brain function and enhances our children’s ability to learn. Exercise during the school day seems to help students stay more focused. We hope that all of our students will learn to enjoy and value exercise.”  

The new recess program is expected to begin in February. In January, personal trainers from Great River Center for Rehab and Clinics, and teachers and para-educators who are assigned to lunchtime recess duty at the two schools will participate in a two-day Playworks training.

During the first 18 months of the grant cycle, the personal trainers will be recess coaches at the schools and facilitate the Playworks program. Then the teachers and para-educators will become coaches.

The Playworks program will be evaluated throughout the grant period. Physical-activity levels will be measured on 12 randomly selected students from each school. Short-term success will be determined by a 10 percent or greater increase in physical activity levels.

Establishing healthy habits at an early age can help reduce childhood and, later, adult obesity.

The obesity rate in the U.S. has doubled in the last two decades, and now 66 percent of the population is overweight or obese. “Overweight” refers to an excessive amount of body weight that includes muscle, bone, fat and water. “Obesity” specifically refers to an excessive amount of body fat. In Des Moines County, 30 percent of adults are obese, compared to 28 percent statewide.