In an effort to stem childhood obesity, 2006-07 Schweitzer Fellow Karen Meyer established a fitness center (above) at King Elementary School.

In an effort to stem childhood obesity, 2006-07 Schweitzer Fellow Karen Meyer established a fitness center (above) at King Elementary School.

A new report from the Trust for America’s Health (grimly titled “F as in Fat 2009: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America”) finds, among other things, that childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980.

Schweitzer Fellows across America are implementing service projects with the goal of reducing those rates. (One quick and innovative example? 2009-10 Greater Philadelphia Fellow Alesia Mitchell, a graduate student in Temple University’s Master of Public Health program, is launching a community service project entitled S.H.A.P.E.E. (Setting Healthy Attitudes for Positive Eating & Exercise) that will lay the foundation for families to lead healthier lifestyles.) 

But today, we’ll take an in-depth look at the observations of 2006-07 Chicago Area Fellow Karen Meyer, who developed a program to promote physical activity among inner city school-aged children at risk for childhood obesity.

“As a health professional, I feel it is my responsibility to promote healthy and active lifestyles among our city’s youth,” Meyer said. “This is why I chose to implement a fellowship project which focused on physical exercise and nutrition education at an elementary school [William H. King Elementary School, a Chicago Public School on the city’s west side].”

“With a small gym serving as a cafeteria for part of the day, an auditorium, and a place for physical education, it is no wonder these students are lacking physical activity,” Meyer said. “They do not have recess either, and most of the students head straight home after school because the neighborhood is unsafe. Gangs, drugs, violence, and risky sexual behavior are issues which plague the students and have infested the school.  Most students do not have social support networks; no stable families, friends, or mentors, to discourage them from engaging in this dangerous behavior.” 

During her first month at King, Meyer observed the students, listening to them talking about issues they were facing at school and at home.  “Once I got a clear idea of how I could help at the school, my project was in full force,” she said. Meyer talked with the principal and her site mentor, and came up with the idea of turning an over-sized empty preschool classroom into a community fitness center where older students, families, and faculty could exercise. 

Meyer typed up a letter and sent it to various fitness centers, universities, retailers, and schools in the area to see if any would be willing to donate equipment.  “Approximately a month later, I received an email from Lifetime Fitness headquarters in Minnesota,” she said. “It stated that they were willing to help the students of King get involved in exercise and staying healthy and would be willing to donate equipment to the school.  I was ecstatic!”

Three junior high boys and another King faculty member assisted Meyer in moving the equipment, and they set up the eight elliptical machines on the King gym’s stage. “Students and staff began using the equipment on breaks throughout the day and before and after school,” said Meyer, who later received a letter from Lifetime saying they were willing to donate 12;13 additional pieces of equipment. 

A Fellow for Life who worked for the Chicago Park District also donated bags filled with brand new balls, footballs, and cones to be used in gym class and at after-school sports practice. ” The students were so happy; especially the younger students who loved playing with the four-square balls and new jump ropes,” Meyer said. 

“I was able to start a community fitness center at King to help promote lifestyle changes and exercise within families in the community,” Meyer said. ” I made exercise activity logs and journals which students and staff could use to track their activity, even once I [left].  I made a bulletin board outside the health classroom which had basic health facts related to exercise, like what a BMI is and how to calculate it, current exercise recommendations for different ages, and what a calorie is.” 

Meyer also taught students in health and gym class.  “In health class, I focused on teaching material promoting healthy lifestyles,” she said. “We also covered basic information about the incidence of STD’s, AIDS/HIV prevention, gang violence, drug use, and relationship issues with the older students.  I also went over the food pyramid and healthy snack information with students of all ages.  We worked on worksheets with the students and answered a wide range of health questions they asked in the classroom.”

Meyer also worked with a Fellow for Life and Rush University volunteers to build a playground at King.  All the materials? Donated. All of the time spent putting the playground together? Volunteered.  “It was such a positive thing to see almost a hundred volunteers come out to King and help build this playground on Saturday,” Meyer said. 

“I’m glad I spent some time getting to know the students and faculty at King before I decided on what type of project intervention to do — this made a huge difference in the students’ and staff’s attitude towards me,” Meyer said. 

“I really loved working on my fellowship project at King,” Meyer said.  “There are so many health consequences of obesity–diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. –and lifestyle prevention and modification can work to ensure good health throughout their lifetime.  I hope I gave the students as much as they gave me.”