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Healthy schools: Project reduces childhood obesity

Video Produced by Harry Mayers, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography
By Greta Guest, Michigan News

MENOMINEE, Michigan—Eric Eddleman and his friends at Blesch Intermediate School in Menominee run the obstacle course of tunnels, bouncers, hurdles and wooden balance beams on the grassy football field. They walk and jog, play lightning ball, jump rope and twirl hula hoops.

Afterward, a snack awaits the students in grades three through six. But it isn’t the typical after-sport snacks often shared on the sidelines of kids’ sporting events–sugary juice pouches, chocolate granola bars or salty and greasy chips. The snack at Blesch is an apple and a bottle of water.

Students running on a field with a big blue ball on the ground

Students run on the obstacle course set up as part of Project Healthy Schools activities developed at the University of Michigan.

“I feel energized and happy, and like I want to run around the field more,” Eddleman says.

His pal, Roman Wondergem, says: “I feel like I actually did something.” This makes Eddleman double over in laughter.

A student bouncing on a big blue ball on a football field

A student at Blesch Intermediate School in Menominee bounces through the obstacle course.

Healthy choices

The fall wellness event at Blesch was part of Project Healthy Schools, a community-University of Michigan collaboration designed to reduce childhood obesity and improve the current and future health of Michigan’s youth. It gets them outside to exercise and socialize in a way that reinforces healthy choices.

The program, which began in 2004, is one of only a few school-based programs that have demonstrated immediate and lasting improvements in participants’ health behavior and cardiovascular risk factors. More than 150 middle schools within 47 Michigan counties have implemented Project Healthy Schools; the retention rate is 75%.

The program encourages healthy habits through skill-based health education and environmental change in Michigan middle schools, and has shown that school-based interventions for reducing childhood obesity are effective.

Project Health Schools has five main goals:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Choose less sugary foods and beverages
  • Eat less fast foods and fatty foods
  • Be active every day
  • Spend less entertainment time in front of a screen

These goals are promoted through 10 standardized, interactive lessons. The program also works with school policymakers to promote healthier school nutrition environments, provide more opportunities to be physically active throughout the school day, set up after-school activity programs, host field days, and coordinate many other environmental changes.

“So whatever schools out there that don’t have Project Healthy Schools, you guys should really do it because we’ve had lots of fun out here, and it really makes us excited that we’re doing this.”

~ Rylan Bricker, student at Blesch Intermediate School

Lasting health improvement

To date, researchers have collected behavioral survey data from more than 21,000 students and physiological data from more than 3,000 elementary school students. The results of participating in Project Healthy Schools have demonstrated immediate and lasting improvements in participants’ health. These improvements include decreased total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure, as well as increased physical activity and decreased sedentary behaviors.

Rylan Bricker, Eric Eddleman and Roman Wondergem stand together on a football field

Rylan Bricker, Eric Eddleman and Roman Wondergem said they hoped all schools would get Project Healthy Schools as it left them feeling energized and excited.

The program is growing thanks to a partnership between U-M and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan called Building Healthy Communities. This partnership provides the opportunity for middle schools to participate in the program while building an environment for long-term sustainability.

Scott Martin, the principal at Blesch Intermediate School, said the school runs the program outside on a daily basis, despite the weather.

“It really gives the students an opportunity to explore a different side of exercise and activity,” Martin said. “I think with just the whole wellness group that we have here at the school, it’s really helped build a community within our building. Kids encourage each other to participate in activities. We don’t have a lot of those students sitting out to the side because they’re not interested.”

Grants from U-M helped the school purchase equipment and tools to support students and promote their health, Martin said.

A student moves through a mesh tunnel

A student zooms through the obstacle course tunnel.

“These are opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily always get outside of school,” he said, “so this is a really cool opportunity for those students. Thanks again to U-M for all of the support with this program … and hopefully it can continue moving forward because this is what our kids deserve.”

Students Katelin Franke-Clark agreed. She and friends Alayna Walker and Emma Wiggs shared their thoughts on the program and what they’ve learned so far.

Three girls standing together on a bench in a football field

Emma Wiggs, Alayna Walker and Katelin Franke-Clark love participating in the outdoor activities that are an important part of Project Healthy Schools.

“One thing we love is probably coming outside and doing stuff,” said Franke-Clark. “The University of Michigan created Project Healthy Schools, and Project Healthy Schools donates to all kinds of schools and gives them balls and waters and all kinds of stuff to do energetic stuff with, to keep you energized and keep going.”

Wendy Rauch, the school’s Project Healthy Schools wellness champion and the health and outdoor recreation teacher, said she loves teaching outside all day. She plans special events so students for each grade level can leave the building to exercise for 45 minute.

Wendy Rauch wearing athletic gear and sitting on the edge of a bench in a field

Wendy Rauch, the school’s Project Healthy Schools wellness champion and the health and outdoor recreation teacher.

“They can’t do these activities during recess. So it’s a lot of fun for them. They get to try different activities that they wouldn’t normally do,” she said. “It’s good for their mental health. It’s good for their physical well-being. They socialize with their friends. It’s a great program.”

Wellness champions are key

Melissa Boguslawski, the Project Healthy Schools program manager, said the program—started by U-M faculty member Kim Eagle, director of the Frankel Cardiovascular Center and professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health—identifies wellness champions at each school.

Melissa Boguslawski looking off in the distance

Melissa Boguslawski, the Project Healthy Schools program manager, said that in the 18 years since the program began, it has reached 112,500 students.

The wellness champions are school staff designated to move the initiative forward. U-M provides them with support through a five-step program geared toward improving school wellness, Boguslawski said.

The champions are trained at the school and paid a stipend for a year as they integrate the program into the culture of the school. Lessons, such as having students measure out the number of spoonfuls of sugar in soda and seeing and touching food ingredients when making a salad, are adapted across schools, depending on which lessons work best.

Kids eating apples and holding bottles of water

Learning about foods that are good for us helps students make smart choices about what they eat.

The program has reached 112,500 students in the 18 years since it began, and Boguslawksi said it would be ideal if every school in Michigan were able to implement it.

That makes sense to kids like Rylan Bricker.

“Kids will be happier if they had Project Healthy Schools,” Bricker said. “So whatever schools out there that don’t have Project Healthy Schools, you guys should really do it because we’ve had lots of fun out here, and it really makes us excited that we’re doing this.”

Two students with hula hoops on their arms while standing on a football field

Students played with hula hoops, jumped rope and played lightning ball as part of the Project Healthy Schools wellness day.

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