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In fight against childhood obesity, a Midvale school holds P.E. during lunch

MIDVALE — More than two dozen middle-schoolers lined up outside the gymnasium doors. It took them less than 15 minutes to scarf down their lunch and they were ready to play some ball.

"It's way better than sitting around the lunchroom doing nothing," said eighth-grader Andrew Swain. He's a team captain for Midvale Middle School's lunchtime sports program, in which students have the option to use the remaining 15 minutes of their lunchtime to play organized sports with one another. It's a program much like the ones first lady Michelle Obama is envisioning when she rolled out the Let's Move campaign targeting childhood obesity on Tuesday. It's also a program that could be on the chopping block if the school's budgets are cinched any tighter.

"We'd really hate to see it go," said Midvale Principal Paula Logan. "But when you look at the fact that some of our classes have up to 36 students each, it's definitely one of those things we might have to cut out."

Swain said he'd be disappointed to see the program go. "My mom is often telling me to be less active and do more homework, but I like to be moving. I have to be moving," he said while finishing a sandwich he made for himself earlier that day.

"I wish I could play every day," he said, adding that being active makes him happier and feel less stress.

With one out of three kids now considered overweight or obese, there is a growing concern that the number of overweight children in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those numbers have doubled in the past 30 years. Experts believe kids eat worse and exercise less than their parents, which leads to unhealthy lifestyles. Obama's new campaign aims to nip that trend, encouraging more physical activity for kids, healthier meals in school and less-confusing food labeling to help parents make better decisions.

At Midvale, students are only required to take a half-year of physical education, something the school's national board certified PE instructor Shelley Allen would like to see change. She'd rather see kids take a PE class all year to help keep them moving. Adding a class, however, would require double the faculty and resources the school has, something that won't be happening in a deficit year.

"I like to show kids that being active can be fun," she said. "Anytime we can get them moving and help them to enjoy being active is great. And the more we can do that, the better." Allen said that with the growing prevalence of video games and computer interaction, kids are not getting as much exercise at home, so it is imperative that it happens at school.

"This isn't about inches or pounds, it's about how our kids feel," Obama said during Tuesday's press conference at the White House. "There are more and more kids with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure today than ever before."

Her plan is focused on helping families and communities work together to fight childhood obesity, which she and health experts across the country have termed an epidemic.

"We force kids to sit still for too long," said Brett McIff, coordinator for the Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity program at the Utah Department of Health. He said kids generally like to be active; the trouble is finding time in their busy schedules to fit in the recommended 150 minutes each week that kids need. More activity, McIff said, could lead to clearer thinking and kids' minds being ready to learn when they're in the classroom.

Already, Americans spend more than $150 billion each year treating obesity-related conditions. But Obama is more worried about what's ahead, calling obesity "one of the most serious threats to their future."

"The truth is, our kids didn't do this to themselves," the first lady said. "We're in charge. We make these decisions."

Allen wishes less emphasis would be put on the negative effects of obesity and more emphasis on the fun that can be had by being more active.

"You have to find some way for kids to have fun with it because that is what will ultimately lead to them making a lifetime commitment to being healthy," she said. Although it takes away an entire class period for her to lead the kids through lunchtime sports, Allen believes the kids really enjoy being a part of something interactive.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com