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Beyond Reading, Writing and Arithmetic: Physical Activity Introduced in Classrooms through New MU Program to Fight Childhood Obesity

April 10, 2008

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, (573) 882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Inactivity is taking over as children spend more hours in front of television or computer screens and fewer hours in gym classes or playing outside. With many schools decreasing the amount of time spent in recess or physical education classes, a University of Missouri fitness expert created a program called SMART MOVES to introduce fun, new ways of working physical activity into a regular school day.

“The good news is that physical activity need not be strenuous to get health benefits,” said Steve Ball, assistant professor of exercise physiology and state fitness specialist for MU Extension. “Children need to accumulate a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Activity does not all have to be done at one time; short 10-minute bursts will do.”

The SMART MOVES year-long curriculum for fourth graders combines the use of pedometers, logging, classroom activities and parent participation. First, students learn to use pedometers in P.E. class and use logs as a motivational tool to keep increasing their steps. In step two, classroom teachers talk about the importance of physical activity and start small activities during school time. Several weeks into the program, children take short activity breaks every day and teachers lead students in fun, physical activities pulled from one of 75 activity cards.

“A student could be in the middle of math class and the teacher could call for an activity break, pull a card and let the students get up and take part in a short, fun activity,” Ball said. “As a side benefit, students become better learners. It is difficult to sit in a class for hours without activity. It is just not a good way to keep students focused.”

Funding for this project was provided by the Healthcare Foundation of Greater Kansas City. About 500 fourth-graders in the Kansas City area are currently taking part in SMART MOVES.

“We know that in sixth and seventh grade, physical activity levels begin to drop,” Ball said. “We hope to reach these kids in fourth grade and help them see that physical activity is something you do throughout the day and get them excited about activity so they can carry this into adulthood.” Ball also created the MyActivity Pyramid, a guide to physical activity for children ages 6 to 11. With a design similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid food guide, MyActivity Pyramid uses cartoon-like drawings and multiple activity levels to show kids how much and what types of activity they need.

“Kids really need several hours of activity, not just the minimum of 60 minutes. That is simply not enough. It is important to get children excited about physical activity early because inactivity tracks into adulthood,” Ball said.