Fit for the future

Many area students in recent years have participated in the Lycoming County Fitness and Nutritional Challenge.

The program, which helps children develop more healthy lifestyles through exercise and nutrition, now has earned acclaim from outside the region.

The Fitness Challenge has received the 2014 National Program of Excellence Award from the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE).

Now in its eighth year, the program encourages children to eat healthier and embrace daily exercise, according to Mike Cillo, co-chair of the Fitness Challenge.

He called the Fitness Challenge an evidence-based program that has become increasingly popular.

“Every year we get more children,” he said.

Eight Lycoming County school districts as well as the Head Start program are involved this year.

Overall, the Fitness Challenge has helped nearly 40,000 children and families focus and improve on healthy behavior.

As noted in its application for the award, Lycoming County has a high prevalence rate of childhood and adult obesity, and the Fitness Challenge is designed to combat that problem.

As an incentive to participate, students earn points for minutes of exercise as well as servings of fruits and vegetables they eat. Exercise can include any number of physical activities including competitive team sports.

At the end of six weeks, prizes are awarded to students who gather 1,260 fitness points and 210 nutritional points.

In addition, awards are given to the first place winners from each school building tallying a minimum of 9,000 points as well as to the top five winners overall.

Students log their daily activities and nutritional intake.

“It’s fun, but it’s challenging,” said Angelo Pearson, a South Williamsport Area School District seventh grader, who was among the five top finishers this year.

Dr. Beth McMahon, president of the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition which implemented the Fitness Challenge, said there are many components going into the program that have helped make it successful.

“It brings practice together with theory,” she said. “When you see theory intersect with practice, that is when organizations like SOPHE take notice.”

McMahon, a professor in Lock Haven University’s Health Science Department, serves as an outside evaluator of the program.

“Our students are trained to do planning assessment and implementation of the program,” she said.

She noted that the Fitness Challenge engages entire families.

“The kids are telling their parents to get off the couch,” she laughed.

Fitness Challenge Co-chair Kathie Sinibaldi said the award is a tremendous honor for school districts and students.

“It is wonderful to be recognized for a program that was started over eight years ago and created to address the obesity rates in the children of our community,” she said. “This program has grown every year and is such a great success due to the dedicated school districts, teachers and volunteers that make this program excel.”

McMahon said it’s especially noteworthy that this marks the second year in a row that a Lycoming County program has been selected for the award. In 2013, The YWCA Liberty Transitional Living Center captured the honor.

The award recognizes “health education principles including provision of a planned, reinforcing series of educational experiences over time, involvement of the target population in planning and implementation and a well-defined evaluation component.”

The award will be presented in Baltimore March 20.