First lady announces effort to help kids exercise

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First Lady Michelle Obama plays with children during a "Let's Move!" event. (AP Photo)

First Lady Michelle Obama plays with children during a “Let’s Move!” event. (AP Photo)

CHICAGO (AP) — Imagine students learning their ABCs while dancing, or memorizing multiplication tables while doing jumping jacks.

Some schools are using both methods of instruction, and Michelle Obama would like to see more of them use other creative ways to help students get the recommended hour of daily exercise.

In Chicago on Thursday, the first lady was announcing a new public-private partnership to help schools do just that. “Let’s Move Active Schools” starts with a website, www.letsmoveschools.org, where school officials and others can sign up to get started.

Mrs. Obama said too many penny-pinched schools have either cut spending on physical education or eliminated it outright to put the money toward classroom instruction. But the first lady who starts most days with a workout — and other advocates of helping today’s largely sedentary kids move their bodies — say that’s a false choice, since studies that show exercise helps youngsters focus and do well in school.

The effort is one of the newest parts of Mrs. Obama’s 3-year-old campaign against childhood obesity, known as “Let’s Move,” which she has spent the week promoting.

“With each passing year, schools feel like it’s just getting harder to find the time, the money and the will to help our kids be active. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should stop trying,” the first lady said in her prepared remarks. “It means we should try harder. It means that all of us — not just educators, but businesses and nonprofits and ordinary citizens — we all need to dig deeper and start getting even more creative.”

She was being joined for the announcement at McCormick Place in her hometown by several Olympians, including gymnasts Dominique Dawes and Gabby Douglas, sprinter Allyson Felix, tennis player Serena Williams and decathlete Ashton Eaton, along with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and triathlete Sarah Reinertsen, whose left leg was amputated above the knee when she was a child. Thousands of students from city middle schools also were being brought in for the event.

Research shows that daily exercise has a positive influence on academic performance, but kids today spend too much time sitting, mostly in school but also outside the classroom while watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Federal guidelines recommend that children ages 6-17 get at least 60 minutes of exercise daily, which can be racked up through multiple spurts of activity throughout the day.

The White House says the most current data, from 2007, shows that just 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools provided daily physical education.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he’s proof of the link between exercise and academic performance. As a boy, he said, he had a hard time sitting still in class but that exercise helped him focus.

“What’s true for me is true for many of our nation’s children,” he said in an interview.

Duncan, who played basketball professionally in Australia, said the choice is not between physical activity or academics, especially with about one-third of U.S. kids either overweight or obese and at higher risk for life-threatening illnesses like heart disease or diabetes.

“It’s got to be both,” he said. Duncan cited the examples of students learning the alphabet while dancing or memorizing multiplication tables while doing jumping jacks.

Mrs. Obama called on school staff, families and communities to help get 50,000 schools, about half the number of public schools in the U.S., involved in the program over the next five years.

The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation will oversee the program. Funding and other resources will come from Nike Inc., the GENYOUth Foundation, ChildObesity180, Kaiser Permanente and the General Mills Foundation.

Under the new initiative, modest grants will be available from the Education Department to help some programs get started. The GENYOUth Foundation and ChildObesity180 also will be awarding grants.

Nike has committed $50 million to the effort over the next five years; the remaining groups together have pledged more than $20 million.

“All kids deserve a chance to realize their full potential, and we believe creating active schools will help kids do better in school and most importantly in life,” said Nike President and CEO Mark Parker.

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