Payton White was just about out of breath. Her hair and face were wet from perspiration. In her hand were 15 straws showing she had just run approximately a mile and a half. None of the other Allen Elementary fifth graders going around the school track with her had close to that number.
"I love to run," Payton said. "Knowing this is good for me makes it that much better."
On this warm afternoon, physical education teacher Travis Lindsey was wearing a Superman shirt, and each time a child finished a lap, they got a straw. Lindsey, a teacher for four years in Muscogee County, explained his "Mile Club" program.
"At the end of the year, we will count up the straws and see how far a child has walked," he said.
Students will look on a map and see how far from Columbus their walking would have taken them.
Ten laps equals about one mile. The club is part of a bigger program: the Allen School Health Initiative. It is sponsored by the community outreach department of Columbus Regional Health, which hopes to expand the program into other schools.
Currently at Clubview Elementary, Columbus Regional holds "Fitness Fridays" twice a month with speakers addressing third graders about healthy habits.
At Allen, a school garden will be planted to promote nutrition awareness. Best Nursery of Fortson, Ga., is doing the landscaping.
"Some students can't even describe some fruits and vegetables," said Dixie McClure, the population health programs coordinator for Columbus Regional.
McClure said there will be four small garden beds and one large one.
"I think it is important that children see the crops grow," said Allen principal Angi Idel. "Some have never been to a farm."
She believes children don't get the physical activity that they should. Physical education classes are only offered a couple of days per week. She said there are short recess periods, but that is not enough.
"These days, kids spend too much time in front of a computer or television," Idel said. "I remember when I was a child I was always out riding a bike or doing some other activity." Idel is thankful Columbus Regional provided the impetus to get the school district to repair the school track. "We just couldn't use it before. Too many holes," she said.
McClure feels the improved track will make a big difference at Allen.
As part of the Allen Health Initiative, signs will be posted encouraging use of the track. It won't be just students getting involved. Teachers will get pedometers to gauge their walking miles. Lindsey said students will learn in his class about muscle and bone development. "P.E. is no longer just throw a ball and say 'go play,'" he said.
"One out of three children are at the obesity level," said Lindsey. "Childhood diabetes is a growing problem. We are trying to bring those numbers down. We want to develop healthy eating habits and get the kids interested in physical activity."
McClure said students will be evaluated at the end of the year about their knowledge of healthy habits and to see if their own behavioral patterns have changed. Teachers and students at Allen will receive information on physical activity and nutrition.
"We hope what students learn at school they will take back to their family," McClure said. "We want fitness to be a lifelong habit."