Battle Creek's Operation Fit teaches kids to move, play, and eat right

Slide to the left! ... Slide to the right!... Take it back now, y'all! ... Hop three times!

Kindergarten students at LaMora Park Elementary in Battle Creek were doing the "Cha-Cha Slide"  in the cafeteria. Some were on-point, some got their rights and lefts confused, while a few just moved with their own interpretation of Mr. C the Slide Man's 2000 classic wedding reception dance. 

It didn't matter how they moved, but that they were moving, motivated by the fun of it. It was a way to "shake their sillies out," as Operation Fit coordinator Emirrora Austin puts it.

This was a Brain Break, which, along with Morning Movements and Active Recess, is part of Operation Fit's fitness program for elementary age students in Calhoun County.  

With the goal of reducing the growing rate of obesity in the county's children, Op. Fit started with two schools in 2014, expanding to eight Battle Creek and Lakeview schools in 2016. 

LaMora Operation Fit coordinator Tamera Gibbs took the Brain Break kids though stretching exercises: "Hands on your heart! I love my heart! Hands on your belly! I love my belly! Hands in the air! I love my whoooole body! And give yourself a big ol' hug!"

The Brain Break at LaMora, led by Austin, Gibbs and Lakeview Operation Fit manager Mariama Wurie, was more like a 10-minute party than the calisthenics in a gym class of olden times. It was structured, but loose enough to be fun.

"Sometimes our brains, for us to fully focus, we need to be up and moving," Wurie says. "Get up, get moving, and now you're energized and refreshed to keep learning." 

They keep it fun and full of play for the students, because the shocking fact is, kids in the age of screen-time are forgetting how to have active fun.

"We found out that children don't know how to play now," Wurie says. So regular recess is now Active Recess, where Operation Fit coordinators and school staff help to organize games: "foursquare, basketball, soccer, kickball -- the different games that we would play when we were younger," she says.

"Even jump-rope, learning how to twirl a jump-rope, learning how to do a hula hoop, a relay race, just basic things like that. Because of video games and iPads and things like that... this generation, this (staring at screens) is what they're doing. You rarely see kids outside playing."

Two obvious facts: Kids should be active and eat well

It turns out that kids are meant to play, meant to move. They are growing, so they need to eat right. If anything unnatural counters these obvious facts -- like sitting and not moving, and eating junk, something's going to go wrong.

They sit through school, then they go home where "you're seeing much more sitting -- watching TV, playing video games, not being outside and active," says Angela Stewart, community initiatives officer at the Battle Creek Community Foundation, who's been with Operation Fit since its planning stage. The BCCF, Regional Health Alliance and Bronson Battle Creek are the program partners.

Operation Fit has its roots in a "spring milage club" beginning in 2012 with seven schools. The club -- now expanded to 22 Calhoun schools -- got students counting miles walked with the goal of winning a bike and other prizes. 

"We thought we needed to do a little bit more," Stewart says. The walking program showed good results, but it was not "the magic bullet that really changed things."

A fitness program was needed, but it had to be something more than just exercise and nutritional education. It had to aim at undoing a culture that has us all sitting motionless and eating "grab-and-go items that are not the healthiest options for food," Stewart says. 

They needed to counter that culture at the start of a young person's life in society, at the elementary school level. "I knew that if we start changing the culture within the school just a little bit, that we'd see really great results from the kids, and they'd be more successful in the classroom." 

During the planning stages, Mark Crawford, VP of community health services for Operation Fit partner Bronson Battle Creek, looked for a school program, "that would get kids up and moving, and would also have a nutrition component," he says.

But nationwide, there were no schools running anything as results-driven as what they wanted. "What we were surprised to discover is that there really was not an evidence-based best practices program. So we ended up creating our own," Crawford says. 

It seems obvious, that better nutrition and more movement would be what was needed to counter the county's high obesity rate. But the partners had to build the program from the ground up, try "to take two seemingly obvious things and applying them daily in the school setting," Crawford says.

Data shows more-active students, fewer trips to the principal's office

Operation Fit data have shown results. Between 2015-2017 students showing improvement during PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) tests rose from 65 percent to 79 percent.  Students in 2016-2017 self-reported after-school increases in healthy eating and activity.

What was most dramatic was "a big drop in disciplinary referrals," Stewart says. 

In the school year before Operation Fit began at Fremont Elementary, there were 200 disciplinary referrals. For Operation Fit's first year, that dropped to 13. "That was a huge change that we saw," Stewart says. Thanks to Morning Movements and Brain Breaks, "kids were able to focus in the classroom, get some of those jitters out and be able to sit and learn." 

Engaging children with ginger roasted carrots 

Doing the Cha-Cha Slide makes one hungry, but the lunch room's raw carrots do get old after awhile. Operation Fit's nutrition component works to get kids interested and tempted by different flavors. 

As cafeteria staff set up the salad bar for lunch, Wurie, Austin, and Gibbs point out that one of the more-popular Operation Fit programs is the monthly tastings. Students are able to sample foods and cuisine that are beyond the usual school lunch grub, from hummus to cooked carrots.

Believe it or not, Lakeview school kids just voted to have cooked carrots -- ginger roasted carrots -- as part of their menu. Battle Creek schools just got starfruit. At the tastings, "we take a vote, we get students' input, and if it goes over well it can get on their menu," Wurie says.

This process of engagement with the students -- getting their input on healthy food, having dance parties for exercise breaks, teaching them the playground games of the pre-internet era -- helps them to become active participants in Operation Fit.

Austin says, "You can really see the engagement. I have kids coming up to me, saying 'I ate my fruits and vegetables today!'" The students are totally involved in working on their health, "whether they know it or not. They're creating these good habits that they can carry into their adulthood."

Fitness needs start at the start of life, before the momentum of bad food and inactivity becomes difficult to counter as an unhealthy adult.

Wurie says, "That's one of the reasons why we're in the elementary schools, to build that foundation." 

"We're planting the seed," Gibbs adds. 

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. He would like to apologize to third-grade teacher Mrs. Chaney for disrupting class with Chris L. and needing to be sent to the hall to sit quietly, but if he’d had a Brain Break surely he wouldn’t have been making rude noises and giggling during math. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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