July 2005

Grant Results


Between January and June 2004, fifth grade students at the Burnt Chimney Elementary School in Wirtz, Va., participated in a comprehensive program designed to increase their daily physical activity.

As part of the program, students wore pedometers to record the number of steps they took daily, and teachers and staff incorporated information on the ingredients of a healthy lifestyle into classroom lessons in math, English, geography and other subjects.

Key Results
By the end of the program:

  • Students had collectively walked the equivalent of 7,840 miles — enough to take them from Virginia through the 47 other contiguous states.
  • Some 20 staff members who participated in a weight loss contest using the pedometers and changing their diet lost a total of 225 pounds in two months.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provided two grants totaling $7,500 to support the project.

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Six million children are seriously overweight, with fewer than one in four involved in 20 minutes of vigorous exercise every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Research has shown that a comprehensive school approach involving teachers and parents can be an effective technique to increase physical activity among children. Increasing the amount children walk daily can be an important strategy to increasing their overall physical activity.

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The focus of RWJF's work in addressing childhood obesity is on children and families in low-income and minority populations, concentrating on ages three to 12, an age range that represents a critical period for developing lifelong habits. Because there are few known, effective strategies for addressing the problem, RWJF is using multifaceted approaches, to be developed with partners at many levels.

The initial goals are to support innovative school and community pilot projects to reduce childhood obesity and to address the huge gaps in knowledge about the causes of obesity in children, particularly environmental factors such as availability of junk food in schools and inadequate healthy food choices in local supermarkets.

The Childhood Obesity Team will also identify opportunities to build on and/or embed healthy eating and physical activity into existing child health initiatives funded by RWJF (e.g., the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools [see also Grant Results] and the Urban Health Initiative) and create opportunities to speak with and influence specific audiences regarding RWJF strategies.

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School staff promoted walking and healthy behavior among all 78 fifth graders at Burnt Chimney Elementary School in Wirtz, Va. According to project staff, these students were, on average, at least 20 pounds overweight at the start of the project. Staff provided each student with a pedometer to record the number of steps he or she took daily.

The goal was to take 8,000 to 9,000 steps a day (equivalent to 1.5 to 2 miles) and log enough miles as a group to "walk" from Virginia through all 48 continental U.S. states, according to Jason Guilliams, a physical education teacher who oversaw the project.

School staff kept a daily tally of the total miles students had logged, and students charted their progress on a map of the United States. Each day, a staff member announced how far the fifth graders had walked and "where in the USA" they were. A typical announcement might be that the students logged 150 miles the previous day and were in Arizona. Guilliams also held competitions between the different classrooms to see which one could log the most miles in a given day. The winners received healthy snacks.

Guilliams said that he soon noticed a difference in the students. "When they would go out to recess, instead of just standing with their friends, they were walking and talking with their friends," Guillams said. "They got excited about moving. They were checking [the pedometer] all the time. They'd say, 'Today I only have a thousand steps. I need to get moving.'"

Students also incorporated their walking into their class work. In English, they wrote about places they had been or read about in one of the states they had "walked." In geography, they mapped their progress and learned about the state they were in. In math, they had to compute their mileage and tally it daily. In health class, a visiting speaker from the county extension agency talked about good choices for snacks.

The cafeteria staff also held a nutrition awareness week for the fifth graders. They replaced fatty foods and sugary drinks like cookies, ice cream and sports drinks with yogurt, fruit, carrots and ranch dressing, other healthy snacks and water. The goal was to help children make food choices that would improve their health.

By the end of the grant, the children had logged 7,840 miles. That was enough to walk from Virginia through all 48 continental U.S. states. In addition, 20 staff members participated in a weight loss contest using the pedometers and changing their diet. As group, they lost a total of 225 pounds in two months.

The project staff did not chart student weight loss because it was not the focus of the project and because children in fifth grade are at an age where they are growing and their bodies are changing, according to project director Guillams. "Our focus is on physical activity. If kids are being active, benefits are going to happen," he says.

The second grant (ID# 051262) helped the school provide healthy food at an annual field day held in June 2004, which also celebrated the pilot pedometer project. The field day was open to all 460 students in the school, staff and parents. Rather than offering the typical fare of hot dogs and potato chips, project staff served grilled chicken patties, low-fat baked potato chips and fresh fruit.


RWJF is producing a video news release on this project that will be sent to television stations.

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Since the project ended, the school district has expanded the program to include four elementary schools, including Burnt Chimney. The program is now aimed at third graders in the hope of encouraging physical activity at an earlier age. The third graders will "walk" to cities in the state of Virginia and in the process incorporate lessons that will help them prepare for their state tests.

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Pilot Study to Increase Physical Activity Among Fifth Grade Students


Burnt Chimney Elementary School (Wirtz,  VA)

  • Pilot Study to Increase Physical Activity Among Fifth Grade Students
    Amount: $ 6,000
    Dates: November 2003 to August 2004
    ID#:  047872

  • Capstone Event for a Project to Increase Physical Activity Among Fifth Grade Students
    Amount: $ 1,500
    Dates: June 2004 to August 2004
    ID#:  051262


Jason Guilliams
(540) 721-2936

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Report prepared by: Susan G. Parker
Reviewed by: Richard Camer
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D.

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