Eating for Life

Getting kids off the couch

The assignment seemed straightforward.

Amy Waters wanted her fourth-grade students to fill out a one-month calendar with an activity a day --- a physical activity a day.

Her aim: To get them off the couch and on their feet.

"Remember," Waters said, as she walked among the tables where her students sat hunched over their blank papers. "You need the resources to do these things. If you don't have a dog, you're not going to write that you're going to walk a dog. Put down things you can actually do."

So they were supposed to actually perform these feats?

Waters asked: "How many of you rode your bike in the last two days?" About six hands waved in the air.

"How many of you are going to the skating party tonight?" Better than half the group of two dozen raised a hand.

"While you're there, you're being physically active. If you're in gymnastics or dance class, that could be your activity for the day. We only have physical education two times a week. That's not enough time to meet your goal. You need to do something outside of class, too."

American kids have become notorious for their sedentary ways. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62 percent of children 9 to 13 engage in no organized physical activity outside school, and 23 percent of children in that age bracket engage in no free-time physical activity at all.

Not so Amanda Jeckell.

"She's running around like a nut most of the time," Bernie Jeckell said of his 9-year-old daughter.

Her "running around" can be as regimented as sit-ups or push-ups or jumping jacks, or as unstructured as chasing the dog around the house or sliding down ice-coated driveways in her Kansas City, North, neighborhood.

"It's not aerobic," Amanda said of the driveway-sliding. "But it's fun."

Amanda knows aerobic from non-aerobic thanks to Amy Waters, her physical education and health teacher this year. Waters has been on a mission for a few years to make inroads into the nation's escalating rate of overweight kids.

Indeed, as alarms have been sounded the last several years about overweight and diabetic children, physical education teachers have been more sensitive to the fact that it's their job to make sure that all children are active, said Brenda VanLengen. She's vice president of operations for PE4Life, a Kansas City-based organization that advocates for more physical education in schools.

"I think there really is a movement in quality physical education programs to expose children to a variety of activities, and to prepare them to be physically active for their lives. The biggest challenge P.E. teachers face is that they don't have much time with their kids."

Over the last decade or two, pressure for test scores has escalated, and schools have been handed the task of correcting many social problems. Because of that, "A lot of administrators and school-board members have cut P.E.," VanLengen said.

Waters brought her health and fitness crusade to elementary-school students after her first efforts at indoctrination, with adults, were stymied.

"It's not a value to them because it wasn't pushed at an early age. I thought the best thing would be to work with kids."

She has been hitting that message hard this year, preaching to kids about the escalating numbers of inactive and overweight children who can look forward to diabetes, heart disease and a foreshortened life span. And that's partly what has driven Amanda to make a point of making rigorous physical activity and play part of her daily routine.

"It's something Ms. Waters wants me to do, and I just got into it," Amanda said. "I'll be in my room watching TV, and I'll do these things at the same time."

There's another factor at work, too. Amanda, whose grades seldom fall below an A, is angling for a better score on the fitness test she'll take in the spring. When her class first took the test early in the school year, Amanda says she "didn't do very well on the push-ups. I did three, and the average is five. I was like, 'Grrrrr!' "

The difficulty, she said: A female voice on a recording dictates the pace of the push-ups, and "the lady talks so slow."

Her small problem with push-ups hasn't deterred Amanda from connecting with an activity she enjoys. She has found a whole bunch of them, in fact. And that, experts say, is key to getting kids to be more physically active.

"It's not getting them to do what we want them to do," said Jim Sallis, a professor of physiology at San Diego State University who has worked to improve physical education in schools.

"It's getting them to do something active that they enjoy. If a child is not very athletically skilled, you might have to try a number of things to find something they enjoy," he said. "If a child is overweight, he doesn't want to play baseball with a lot of fast, thin kids."

Amanda's "not into sports," her teacher said. "But she's really enthusiastic about doing things on her own."

Like bouncing on the trampoline in her back yard. And roller skating. One Wednesday a month, her school organizes a party at a Northland roller rink from 6 to 8 p.m. And every month, Amanda is there, usually dropped off by her father, Bernie.

"I'll come in at quarter to 8, and she'll still be skating," Bernie said. "The other kids will be taking their skates off. She's the first one on the floor, the last one off. She'll be here for two hours, and then she'll be at home bouncing off the walls. We had a snow day Friday. She was outside from 10 a.m. until I got home at 5. She and her friends were out there sledding. They're always finding something to do. It's not necessarily structured, but she's moving."

Age undoubtedly is one factor in Amanda's high-energy life.

"Children start out their lives physically active," said George Graham, a professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University who studies children and activity. "In upper elementary school they become less active. That's when we see kids become obese. From ages 12 to 18, there's a pretty clear increase in overweight and decrease in physical activity."

Physical activities at that point tend to become more competitive, ruling out those who aren't the fastest or the strongest.

And then there's the nerd factor.

"There aren't ways for 12-year-old kids to be physically active that are exciting," Graham said. "It's not cool to ride your bike with friends. You really don't want to go walking with your parents. It's not cool to work out."

As kids approach middle school, he said, physical play "definitely has an image problem."

Cool is sitting around with your index finger on a mouse or a remote control.

Like any child, Amanda spends time watching television and playing video games and engaged with the computer. But, so far anyway, it doesn't persist for hours and hours and hours.

Although the Jeckells have three television sets, and although they're about to buy a second computer to put in Amanda's bedroom, electronic entertainment "is not a focal point" of the family life, Bernie Jeckell said. "The TV is not our baby sitter."

He and his wife, Lynne, include Amanda, their only child, in nearly everything they do.

"We don't say, 'Hey kid, go to your room.' "

In addition to his job as a paint engineer at Ford's Claycomo plant, Bernie runs a business of his own, maintaining video games. When he has a customer to take care of, he takes his daughter along and gives her a job to do. He generally finds a role for her in his home-maintenance work, too.

The three of them entertain themselves together, whether it's going to an arcade or, on fairly rare occasions, renting a video.

The Jeckells always have made it a point to introduce Amanda to new experiences, whether it's a sport or a musical instrument or dance class.

"We want her to give it a fair shot," Jeckell said. "If she tries it and doesn't like it, we move on to something else."

People who deal with children and exercise seem to agree that one important strategy for raising a physically active child is to expose him or her to many options. Another point made over and over: Parents must set an example of embracing and celebrating movement and fitness.

Children tend to follow in their parents' footsteps where eating and exercising are concerned, said Natalie Allen.

Getting kids off the couch and away from the potato chips is her mission and her vocation. As a dietitian on the staff of Barnes Jewish Health Systems in St. Louis, Allen teaches weight management to children and travels throughout the state urging schoolchildren to move more and eat less.

Another important piece of motivating sedentary children is parents who are "willing to work out with them," she said. "Making it a family thing really increases the odds of a kid following through."

Although Bernie doesn't seek out physical rigors, he said his wife makes liberal use of a treadmill and an exercise ball at home.

"Amanda doesn't use that, but I'm sure she sees my wife doing that," he said, sitting at the roller-rink snack bar while his daughter and a couple of her friends skate circles nearby. Had his wife been feeling well enough that evening, Jeckell said, "She would be out there skating with her."

Although nurturing a physically active child wasn't necessarily one of the Jeckells' goals, it has turned out to be one of the results.

"She's a kid," her father said. "But she's not a couch potato."

To reach Karen Uhlenhuth, features reporter, call (816) 234-4783 or send e-mail to