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Stepping Up to Family Fitness Challenge

A PTA encourages its school families to walk a combined 1 million steps to better health.

by Patty Catalano
PHOTO BY ROBIN NELSON

Students and parents at Briarlake Elementary in Decatur, Ga., have made huge strides in staying fit and improving their eating habits. PTA leaders inspired them every step of the way with their Million Steps Challenge. The initiative, part of a larger Healthy Habits program, proved to be an exercise in smart planning and parent group ingenuity.

Briarlake PTA’s Healthy Habits committee—consisting of parents along with the school’s principal, PE teacher, and nutrition manager—first embarked on an ambitious fitness campaign in spring 2008. “Our goal was to get students, teachers, administrators, parents, and families involved in increasing physical activity and improving eating habits,” explains Healthy Habits chairwoman Sarah Cook. At that time, Cook and former Briarlake PTA president Angela Hansberger won a grant from the Georgia PTA that allowed them to purchase pedometers for students and teachers to count the number of steps they took. The team then rolled out an ambitious two-part program: 40 Days to Healthy Habits and the Million Steps Challenge.

Hansberger and Cook distributed pedometers with a Million Steps Challenge logo and sent home an information packet to parents. Each packet contained a letter challenging students to walk 1 million steps with a partner over 40 days; a daily step-counting chart; and tips for families on eating healthy and staying active. Parents were asked to get involved by walking with their children and to record their steps each day. They also got stickers to reward kids when they performed any of the suggested healthy activities listed on a program sheet, such as identifying healthy food groups, eating five fruits and veggies a day, and creating a healthy menu for their family.

“Our first activity had overwhelming participation,” Cook notes. “Students brought in pictures and labels of foods they eat and categorized them as ‘healthy foods’ or ‘foods to limit.’ We then posted them on a bulletin board in the cafeteria, but due to the huge participation, we expanded the collage to the main bulletin board at the entrance of the school.”

During the following weeks, students submitted their step-tracking cards to the 5th grade math specialist, who worked with her students to calculate the total steps for the entire school. “We then converted the steps into miles and visually showed our progress in ‘walking across the United States’ on the main bulletin board at the entrance to the school,” Cook explains. “We managed to cross the U.S. five times!”

Hansberger and Cook modified the PTA’s Healthy Habits program in spring 2009. It became a two-week program that incorporated exercise, healthy eating, and wellness activities without the Million Steps Challenge. Instead, leaders focused on motivating families and faculty members to complete Briarlake’s first 5K Beaver Run.

To help students prepare, the Briarlake PTA and faculty hosted a Wednesday walking club and a Thursday track club for parents and students; they also gave out stickers and prizes based on weekly lap totals. The PTA helped coordinate race-day activities, secured sponsors, and arranged a special post-race celebration for families.

Hansberger says one of the highlights of the 5K was when a student who had struggled during his training finished the race and won a medal. “He...said that he was going to frame his medal and race number because he worked so hard,” she recalls. She and Cook have both received great feedback from parents about the PTA’s fitness initiatives. “Many parents were very thrilled with the Healthy Habits program because their children were actively taking a role in their physical fitness and policing their parents on doing the same.”

The Group
Briarlake Elementary PTA, Decatur, Ga.

School size: 417 students, grades preK-5
Annual budget: $50,000
Fundraisers: Auction, catalog sale, used book sale
Mission statement: We work to form a collaborative effort between home and school that maximizes students’ social and academic potential, preparing them to contribute to the common good of the community and to compete successfully in a global society through a multidisciplinary learning experience that promotes student achievement in a challenging, stimulating environment.

Million Steps Challenge
Along with eating more healthily, students and families are tasked with taking 1 million steps in 40 days.

Walking the walk: When the PTA sent home information about the Million Steps Challenge, leaders listed the daily recommended step totals for each student and parent to make the challenge seem less daunting. Parent leaders pointed out that the typical healthy elementary-age child walks about 15,000 steps a day, while the average adult walks about 10,000 steps. By maintaining this rate for 40 days, families could successfully meet the goal of 1 million steps.

Every step counts: Cook won a grant to purchase the pedometers, which were instrumental in keeping students and faculty members focused on meeting their daily and weekly goals. “Last year, one parent said they had to get step counters for the whole family because everyone got so into the program,” she recalls. “I also heard from one parent that it was eye-opening to see how few steps their kids get in a day when they don’t have soccer or another scheduled activity.”

From start to finish: To help families log their million steps, the PTA offered a Morning Movers Club each day led by the school’s principal and PE teacher. PTA leaders also sponsored “walk to school days” every Wednesday throughout March and April.

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