Fitness Is Fun

Fitness Is Fun

Nonprofit after-school program teaches children about fitness and nutrition at an early age.

It’s Thursday afternoon at Providence Elementary. The dismissal bell just rang, but 40 students are opting to put in a little overtime in the name of fitness and nutrition.

The students are participants in Functional Fitness 4 Kids, or FF4K — an after-school program designed to teach them about exercise and healthy eating habits. Denise Moser, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director, said she created the program because of the obesity epidemic in America. She also did it because she wanted to create a free after-school program for the children at Lanier Middle School, where she also teaches physical education.

"It started as Lanier Boot Camp," she said. "Then in 2005, I was granted nonprofit status."

Fairfax County then expanded its after-school programs at all middle schools in 2006, providing funding for physical, social and academic programs at each school, including late bus transportation. With the county’s expansion of free programs, Moser focused on expanding hers as well. On Tuesday, April 25, 2006, sixty-two students at Oak View Elementary participated in the first FF4K workout. The program still exists at Oak View, but has since expanded to Providence, Robinson Secondary and Daniels Run Elementary.

"What I like about it is that it gives kids who are obese a chance to recognize they need to do something," said Matt Corey, FF4K instructor at Oak View Elementary. "And when they start seeing results, there is nothing like seeing a happy kid."

The program currently operates from donations and fund raising. More than 50 schools want to bring FF4K to their students, but funding isn’t available yet. If FF4K receives a significant amount of grants, Moser said she hopes to take the program to a national level.

"Now there’s quite an extensive wait-list," she said. "We’re waiting for some big grants."

ABOUT 17 PERCENT OF CHILDREN ages 2 to 19 are overweight, according to the 2003-04 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Between 1988-94, and 2003-04, the number of overweight children increased more than 6 percent, according to the data.

"It is obvious that children are less active and have poor diets," Amy Haak, an FF4K instructor, said via e-mail. "Being a part of a program like FF4K teaches them that physical activity is fun and gets easier with practice … the positive reinforcement is out best motivator for helping them lead physically active lives."

Haak, a physical education teacher at Providence Elementary, said she became an FF4K instructor because the program can expand on what she tries to achieve in the classroom. But since elementary physical education classes focus more on skills like throwing, catching, kicking and volleying, she said not much time is left to focus on fitness in the twice-weekly 30-minute classes.

"By offering this program we are able to really engage our students in fitness techniques that we may never have the chance to cover during the school day," said Haak.

FF4K ROUTINES are one hour long. The children start the workout with a fun warm-up game, said Moser. At the Providence workout session, Thursday, May 3, they played what looked like some form of tag. The children ran around outside chasing each other, laughing and smiling the entire time.

"It’s making me stronger and letting me have fun," said Nick Fry, an 11-year-old FF4K participant at Providence.

After the warm-up, the students gathered in the gymnasium where the instructors set up a circuit of cardiovascular and strength-training exercises. The children got into smaller groups and spent 45 seconds at each station of exercises. Some stations utilized equipment and props, while other relied on plain old jumping jacks, push-ups and stomach crunches to get the blood pumping.

"The exercises are all appropriate for kids and adults alike," said Haak.

During the workout, instructors both participated in the exercises and walked around supervising the children to make sure everyone was doing each exercise safely.

But just as it is with any adult exercise program, if there’s no pain, there’s no gain.

"Kids at this age don’t understand pain," said Luke Amos, an FF4K instructor and Providence Elementary physical education teacher. "They always associate pain or discomfort with something bad."

As the children completed their circuit exercises at Providence, several shouted "feel the burn" to their fellow participants. The smiles and laughter continued from the cardio and strength workout to the stretching and cool-down portion of the workout.

"The FF4K [program] shows the kids fun and different ways that work the same muscles, and the kids tell me all the time about doing these FF4K exercises at home," said Corey. "It’s pretty cool."

Each FF4K session ends with a nutrition tip and a healthy snack for everyone. The tip of the day at Providence was to always remember to eat a healthy breakfast.

The tip topics vary, but the children listen and take it in. After the workout, several students said FF4K has taught them to always drink water after exercising, always eat a healthy breakfast in the mornings and to stay away from eating a lot of sugar.

"I like it cause it gets you in shape so you’re healthy and don’t eat the wrong stuff," said Marissa Bellino, 11.

FF4K instructors are mostly physical education teachers in the schools, since they already "have a rapport with the students," said Moser. Each instructor has to complete a workshop, teaching them the various fitness routines and exercises used in the program.

"From the minute I participated in the workshop, I wanted to get it going here at Providence," said Haak. "As a physical educator, my goal is to prepare my students towards becoming physically active for a lifetime, and this program teaches them exactly how to, while still having fun."