When students at a rural Georgia elementary school were asked in a survey why they joined their school’s fitness club, some said because their parents made them. When asked why they stayed in the club, “They all said because it’s fun!” says Marlow Elementary School nurse Jamie Vance.

Eight public elementary schools serve Effingham County’s school district, double the number compared to 15 years ago. In a rapidly growing region with limited resources, Marlow Elementary has distinguished itself by creating a culture of fitness that has made physical activity and healthy eating a defining quality of the students’ daily routine—before, during and outside of school hours.

Marlow Elementary is one of several dozen Georgia schools committed to creating healthier school environments through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, which works to improve school environments nationwide by promoting healthy eating and physical activity. The Alliance, a joint venture of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, aims to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015, and to empower kids nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supports the Healthy Schools Program.

“We started the fitness club three years ago,” explains Vance, a leader of the school’s wellness team. “One of our third graders was instructed by her doctor to walk 30 minutes a day because she was obese and had hypertension. At first it was just the two of us, walking laps in the gym. But I quickly realized that other kids could benefit from doing the same thing.”

The school began to measure students’ height, weight and body mass index, and at-risk students were invited to join the fitness club. Parents signed a permission form allowing the students to exercise before school. “But the club is open to everyone,” notes Vance, “and other kids and staff who arrive at school early often join us.”

Today, 70 Marlow students along with several staff members are enrolled in the early morning fitness club. Students are grouped by grades (upper and lower), and each group meets twice a week.

“It helps wake me up and keep me focused,” says Andrew, a fifth grader who participates in the fitness club Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at 7:15 a.m. “It’s easier to run creatively,” he adds. “Back and forth gets boring, but we run in figure eights and the music makes it fun.”

“We warm up to the Safaris’ song Wipe Out,” says Vance. “When the music is soft we walk, and when it gets faster we run, so it’s walk-run-walk-run.”

Next, everyone moves through a series of workout stations set up around the gym, all done to music, for a full 25 to 30 minutes of non-stop exercise.

“The kids love to pull out the equipment at each station, just simple things but fun to play with—hula hoops, jump ropes, exercise balls and rubber bands.” Along the way, Vance incorporates basic health lessons about respiration, pulse rate and heart endurance.

Immediately after fitness club ends a healthy breakfast is served in the cafeteria, all before school officially begins at 7:45 a.m.

Incentives help keep students motivated. Those who arrive on time and participate in their scheduled sessions receive a colorful plastic foot charm.

“They love these charms,” says Vance. “They put them on their shoelaces and make them into necklaces.”

Besides all the fun students are having, the fitness club has made a serious impact. In addition to physical health benefits, Marlow’s teachers report increased class participation, improved grades, enhanced self-esteem and fewer behavioral issues among those students who participate in morning exercise.

A crowning achievement of the transformation of Marlow Elementary’s physical activity environment has been the creation of a walking trail, dedicated in 2010.

“It’s a dream come true,” says Vance. “A local high school student working toward his Eagle Scout badge made it his project for a year and a half. It’s a quarter-mile trail, landscaped with timber mulch, winding through beautiful old trees on school property. We take the students there for outdoor exercise, which we still call ‘recess.’ In the old days, we rewarded kids with candy—here’s a Skittle, an M&M, a candy bar. Today we reward them with an extra 10 minutes on the walking trail!”

There’s one more reason Andrew loves the trail. “Exercise can make you really sweaty, but on the trail the shade from the trees helps you stay cooler.”

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