By Christoph Wilkinson
Students from 52 Utah elementary schools walked nearly one million miles this school year in a fight against obesity.
The Utah Department of Health and the State Office of Education joined together at the beginning of the school year to create Gold Medal Schools, an initiative created to address physical activity and nutrition in schools.
The program aims to help students become more active and healthier eaters, said Jana Kettering, public information officer of the Utah Department of Health.
Kettering said an estimated 15 percent of Utah”s children are overweight or obese, and doctors are reporting an alarming increase in Type II Diabetes among elementary-aged students.
Utah”s students are no exception in following the trend of nation-wide obesity, said Susannah Derbenwick, Gold Medal School director.
“Type II Diabetes used to be referred to as adult onset diabetes,” Derbenwick said. “It”s sad to know that the coined phrase for Type II Diabetes is now ”diabesity.””
According to U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, “Schools are identified as a key setting for public health strategies to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity.”
As part of the Gold Medal Program, elementary schools are required to implement a policy of structured physical activity for 90 minutes each week, said Joan Wave, cardiovascular director for the Utah Department of Health.
“We saw a need to get the kids more active during their lunch hour,” Warner said. “In conjunction with the Olympics, we organized Olympic-style competitions each day to increase their level of activity.”
J. R. Smith Elementary School teachers also participate in physical activities. Some teachers come to school early to walk around in the halls as part of the program.
Schools can earn up to $1,000 pending on how much criteria a school meets, said Susannah Derbenwick, Gold Medal School director.
“We give non-candy incentives,” said Harvey Warner, principal of J. R. Smith Elementary School in Heber, Wasatch County. “We hand out coupons from local businesses and the kids love them.”
Retailers redeem the coupons for free prizes.
“The participating kids have a huge advantage over others,” said Emily Smith, a BYU graduate and former intern for the Gold Medal School Program.
“The best part about the program is the schools don”t have to do anything. All they have to do is change the environment so the students can form healthy habits,” Smith said.