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Keeping Children Fit and Healthy

Courtney Burns and Meriwether Taliaferro balanced themselves across large, blue exercise balls, their hands planted firmly on the floor. Keeping their bodies stiff, they executed push-ups in time with the instructor's counting. As they moved they fell forward, blocking their pink, sweat-tinged faces from view.

Twenty-five push-ups are only part of the exercise routine that Courtney and Meriwether, both 10, do every Thursday in the gym at Selden's Landing Elementary School as a part of Kids Living Fit, a 12-week research study and fitness course being conducted through Inova Loudoun Hospital.

The study, which focuses on children in second through fifth grades, was designed by Karen Gabel Speroni, the nursing research director at the hospital, and aims to improve the health and fitness of elementary-school-aged children to help maintain healthy weights.

"I would like for children to learn foundationally what types of food to eat," Speroni said. "I want them to think about, 'What's best for me?'"

THE STUDY IS made up of almost 200 children from four different elementary schools: Tolbert, Belmont Station, Selden's Landing and Newton-Lee. Each week on their school's assigned day, the children gather in their school gym to participate in a physical workout put together and led by Kids Living Fit founder, Pana F. DeGooyer.

DeGooyer has been dreaming about putting together a children's fitness program since she became a trainer 13 years ago. Last spring she realized her dream and formed Kids Living Fit. She teamed up with Speroni for the research study after the two met at the gym one day and got to talking.

"It is really important for kids to start thinking about these things at a young age," DeGooyer said. "If you're athletic as a child and for some reason lose it as an adult, you can always get in back. The foundation is there."

IN ADDITION TO physical exercise the participating children are given lessons during four of the weeks on important aspects of nutrition and eating. Karyn Theis, a registered Dietician who works at Inova Loudoun Hospital, has taught the children about the food pyramid and the adapted pyramid and how much of each food makes up a single serving.

Her class throughout this eighth week is called "Portion Distortion" and focuses on how many calories are actually in some of the children's favorite snacks. Theis, instead of focusing solely on caloric numbers, which might confuse younger kids, put together a presentation about how the size of everything from French fries to soda has grown over the past 20 years.

As the images of food appear on the screen behind her, Theis asked the children how many calories they believed were in the larger, modern-sized foods. Once the caloric difference was established, the children were shown a popular activity, such as dancing or skateboarding, and guessed how long they would have to do each activity to burn off the extra calories from the larger snack.

"The most important thing for these kids to learn is balance and variety and moderation in everything they eat," Theis said. "It is the golden rule of nutrition."

As a part of learning about nutrition the children are taught about making "Best4U" choices, a term Speroni uses to indicate which of a group of foods is the healthiest choice.

"Each month we went through their school lunch menu and marked which of the options would be the best choice," Speroni said. "We also put together a one-month menu for the kids to take home, in case they want to bring their lunch."

For Speroni the most important thing about the study is teaching children about choice. She wants the children to know which would be the most healthy choice and to then decide for themselves. That way, she said, the children are taking responsibility for the way that they eat. As a part of the study, the children are asked to keep track of what they eat, what types of activities they do and to use a pedometer to count the number of steps they take in a week.

"By having them write these things down and keep a food diary, it helps the kids really know what they are doing and make changes."

CHANGING HABITS IS the ultimate goal of the program and parents of Selden's Landing participants have seen the change in their children.

Karen Muldoon enrolled her two children Meghan, 7, and Colin, 9, in order to keep them active and fit, but has found the course has done more than just that.

"They really are aware of what they eat now. They're eating a lot more fruit and vegetables," she said. "They're also limiting what they eat. I know that they are going to grow up to be healthy adolescents and adults."

Nutrition was Helen Leblanc's only motivation for enrolling her daughter. Margo, 9, used to have horrible eating habits, but, the mother said, has really changed the way she looks at food since becoming a part of Kids Living Fit.

"She's eating more vegetables and, though fruit still isn't a big hit, is at least eating apples," Leblanc said. "She watches all her ingredients now. She'll read the cereal box in the morning and check to see how much sodium is in something. When we go to the store, she's checking all the labels. Although she doesn't always choose the best one, she is aware of these things now."

THE HEART of the program is DeGooyer, whose passion for children's nutrition and fitness is apparent in the way she leads her exercise classes and the energy she expels motivating the children.

"I remind the kids constantly that they are doing something really tough for anyone to do," she said. "It really gives them a sense of accomplishment when they reach the end. They might not go into the hour wanting to [workout], but they are always excited by the end."

By the end of a 30-minute session, DeGooyer herself is more red-faced and physically spent then almost all of her students.

"Pana is amazingly motivating to the kids," Muldoon said. "They'll come up to me and tell me they're tired and don't want to do it, but they always do. And that's Pana. She'll motivate them past their normal limits, past what they think they can do."