Taking Action, Getting Active in Our Communities

Sat, 3 Dec. 2011 - 12:31 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

There is little question the American media now has a conceptual hold on the "obesity epidemic" afflicting the nation's youth, and politicians and policy makers are bandying about the watchwords with gravitas. Yet while schools continue to offer physical education classes as infrequently as one 30-minute period a week—often without actual physical activity—there are those too often unsung among us who do more than pay lip service to the childhood overweight and obesity problem.


Ann Arbor YMCA

Enter Diane Carr, senior program director of the newly renovated YMCA in Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose brand new facilities, improved location, and dedication to reaching the fitness periphery has earned it a worthy highlight here, as well as role model status. In Michigan, as elsewhere, kids receive one paltry 30-minute PE class per week, and it simply isn’t enough to even get them excited about moving their bodies, let alone promote lifestyle change. But as a member of the Gulick Project (a group of YMCAs committed to fighting obesity in the nation’s communities), the Ann Arbor YMCA has employed sophisticated data collection techniques to both recruit new members and to discover and overcome common barriers to exercise.  


A major part of the new strategy involves a shift in focus from regular exercisers to those who would like to start an exercise program, or who have done so in the past with little long-term adherence to it. Redefining exercise to encompass a broader scope of physical activity is paramount to this shift. In the past, the 15 or 20% of adults who regularly exercise have traditionally made up the target membership of the Y, but now cities like Ann Arbor are realizing these people will exercise regardless of what’s made available to them. 


Fifty-five percent of adults are what Carr categorizes as “healthseekers”—people who may have had some success in the past with an exercise regimen, but have fallen off despite knowing the benefits. These healthseekers are people who want to get fit but have been frustrated by diets or fitness programs that do not meet their needs. Carr has stepped up to provide a variety of services for them. For example, the Ann Arbor YMCA helps build small support communities by creating “member appreciation” events and informal clubs for groups sharing various activities or classes. These communities increase member engagement and support long-term, healthy lifestyles. Carr sees that it’s vital to establish connections between people with similar goals and obstacles to fitness, rather than connections between them and YMCA employees alone.


“The Gulick Project focuses on making a person feel healthier and successful rather than on weight loss,” says Larry Thomas, an Ann Arbor YMCA personal coach. “Weight loss is a by-product of this individualized program that is based on a long-term relationship between the member and the YMCA community.”

Membership in the Ann Arbor YMCA has increased dramatically since 2005. Carr attributes this to the new facility, and its highly accessible location. “When people can pass by and see some of the things going on in the building, that helps a lot,” she says.

And that, in turn, helps attract youth. “We’ve always been family oriented, but now that we’re in more of a neighborhood area, our family membership has increased. It’s walkable—we were centered downtown before.”


The Ann Arbor Y offers a variety of programs that kids can’t readily enjoy at school: gymnastics, swimming (starting at 6 months), dance, martial ways, and league sports like basketball and baseball. Most classes are free to members, others involve a nominal fee. Carr believes in teaching healthy habits at a very young age, but also at any age. Parents receive nutritional education, and get involved with their children’s fitness by having the opportunity to volunteer coach. Personalized training is also available at the YMCA.


The new facility celebrated its one-year anniversary in April, and is one of 30 national
YMCAs participating in The Gulick Project, which is named after Luther Gulick, an early YMCA health and wellness pioneer. By re-engineering the way national YMCAs work with prospective and current members to promote healthy living, people like Diane Carr hope to one day reverse trends toward overweight and sedentary life among not only the country’s youth but anyone with the desire to change. There is little doubt that the fight against obesity starts in the local community. This takes us to another part of Michigan, for a local success story involving the American Running Association’s One-on-One Walk & Run program.


Howe Elementary School, Dearborn, MI

ARA youth fitness honoree Rhonda Snyder, BSN, RN, a school nurse in Dearborn, is a perfect model for how a run/walk program can infect an entire school. Snyder reports, “I had been a labor and delivery nurse most of my career. Six years ago when I came to [Howe Elementary] I noticed the students with cognitive impairments didn't move. I knew they were all future cardiac and diabetic candidates. I wanted to start a program which both moved the students and educated the staff, students, and community on the personal responsibility we have to live a healthy lifestyle.” Snyder needed an easy exercise program that would fit into the teachers’ day. She notes, “Teachers are so busy and once they get their daily regimen in place it's tough to ask for more of their precious time.”


The program she created, which has teachers and their classes logging miles on the school track, began with the special education students and has expanded schoolwide. It works because many students can exercise under the supervision of one faculty member. The program has expanded dramatically from its first year, in which only one teacher participated. The following year, a handful of other teachers decided to participate. “I needed them to keep track knowing that their consistency and length of time walking and running would increase if they wrote it down,” Snyder says. No stranger to the benefits of giving out prizes for meeting fitness goals, she says, “I bought some LiveStrong yellow bracelets for incentive. There were only a handful of older students that could run a mile without stopping. They received yellow bracelets as a reward.” Since then, ARA executive director Dave Watt has given Howe Elementary t-shirts and red bracelets as more "carrots." As Rhonda has no budget, she greatly appreciates the freebies. Snyder says she allows any 10 minutes of exercise to count as a mile—unless the exercise is walking or running—because she just wants the kids away from the TV, computer, and telephone as much as possible. 


You can quantify the results. This year the 130-odd participating students have logged over 14,000 miles in laps and outside sports. The special ed side logs their miles solely on the track.  There are 49 of these students, and they have logged approximately 3,500 miles this way. “I think that is a miracle,” Rhonda says. Now the students also regularly write about healthy lifestyle choices, journal their exercise achievements, and graph their miles.

Snyder now witnesses staff walking on their lunch hours. Students approach her and tell her of their newfound exercise experiences at home. They are aware of heart health. She insists this model can work for any school, anywhere. “I just found the program, adjusted it to fit our school, and pestered, encouraged, and pleaded with the staff to keep records and get with the program." They clearly have.


For more information on starting a program in your community, . 


(RUNNING & FITNEWS® April/March 2006 • Volume 24, Number 2)

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