Guv's Challenge gets teens off the couch
When Los Altos High School senior Anna Lee quit competitive swimming last year to participate in Main Street, the school's top choir, she also gave up regular exercise.
There was always an excuse, she explained: She was too busy; her bike tires were flat; her knees were bad and she couldn't run.
Then, in December, she heard about the Governor's Challenge, a statewide program put on by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports aimed at getting students to exercise more. Its premise is simple: commit to exercising for at least 30 minutes three times a week for a month. Perks for participants include free gym memberships and lift tickets at nearby ski resorts.
"My friend and I were like, 'Let's do it,' because I've never been skiing before," Lee said, adding that besides the incentives, doing the Governor's Challenge "was more about wanting to get back into shape."
Since signing on to the Challenge, Lee said she and a group of friends from school have been coordinating times to visit the local 24 Hour Fitness, where they received a free membership. They use the cardio machines, she said, and have started to do some light weightlifting as well.
"We'll call each other up and say, 'Do you want to go to the gym at 5, 6, 7 ...?'" she said.
The program is growing precipitously. Last year, 80,000 students statewide participated in the Challenge. By the end of January this year, Lee was among 429,271 participants with three months still remaining. A state official told the Voice that 675 youths from the city of Mountain View have participated thus far this year.
"Whatever you like to do and it gets your heart pumping, that's what we want to encourage," said Kenny Rogers, executive director of the Governor's Council. "Hopefully, this will help children develop a love for physical activity that they'll carry their whole lives."
Rogers said the challenge is open-ended to encourage participation.
"We're facing an enormous problem with childhood obesity," he said. "Our healthiest communities now are still worse than our unhealthiest communities were a generation ago."
"We used to play hide and seek and all these games in the street," he added. "That's just not the world we live in at this point. Fast food and unhealthy food is too prevalent, more prevalent in certain communities." These days it's difficult, he said, "to commit to a diet that's healthy."
According to 2008 data from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, about one in four children in the county are overweight or obese, as defined by having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher. Hispanic and African-American populations are more likely to be overweight or obese.
But the latest signs are encouraging. Joy Alexiou, spokesperson for the county Public Health Department, said the number of overweight and obese children in Santa Clara County has declined slightly over the last several years.
"It seems like we're following the national trends," she said. "We think more people are making an effort on both better eating habits and exercising. We know there have been measures taken here in our county, with schools in particular — about what's offered at the cafeteria, what's offered in vending machines. Maybe we're turning a corner and we're starting to realize some good changes."
Rogers said the importance of fitness extends beyond physicality. He called it "a critically important fact," supported by new research, that "physical activity is highly connected to academic success."
County Public Health Department data supports this. In a 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, it was reported that those who are obese are less likely to graduate from college or to pursue graduate or professional degrees.
"We're finding a real connection between the physical activity and the academic success," Rogers said. He noted that last year, schools with the highest participation in the Governor's Challenge saw standardized test scores rise up to 8 percent.
He acknowledged that a one-month commitment to exercise during the Challenge may not be life-altering for every participant. However, "A portion of those kids it will affect," he said, "and it will change their health outcomes in the future. But it's going to take a lot more than the Governor's Challenge to turn things around in society."
The Governor's Challenge has kick-started at least one local student. Lee said she plans to continue heading to the gym, and that she's already reaped some benefits of regular exercise.
"Exercise improves your mood," she said, adding that once she started "I felt a lot better. Sitting around at home and watching TV is not an uplifting thing to do."
For more information about the Governor's Challenge or to sign up, visit www.govcouncil.org/challenge.
E-mail Kelsey Mesher at firstname.lastname@example.org