Two Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs That Have Actually Been Proven to Work

In the wake of the September 19th, 2006 Institute of Medicine report that collectively documents our nation’s failure to address the childhood obesity crisis, I’d like to talk about two programs that have actually been proven to work under real life conditions.

PE4Life in Naperville, IL

The first, PE4Life, is a well organized, well funded, and scientifically documented project whose model program flourishes at Madison Junior High, School District # 203 in Naperville, IL. PE4Life in Naperville is headed up by Phil Lawler, former physical educator and coach who now serves as the Director of the PE4Life Academy, an affiliated project that’s designed to show interested physical educators and educational administrators from around the nation how Madison Junior High’s PE4Life program works.

Only Three Percent of Our Kids are Obese…

In School District # 203 only 3% of their students are obese. Compare that to over 15% nationally, and you’ll see why decision makers from around the nation are flocking to Lawler’s PE4Life Academy to find out what he knows that the rest don’t know. “We’ve trained people from forty different states and five foreign countries,” observed Lawler. “I’d say that’s a pretty good indicator of the interest levels in this program, wouldn’t you agree?”

Corporate Sponsors

PE4Life can boast of corporate sponsors including companies like Reebok, Asics, Gatorade, Quaker Oats, Life Fitness, and Dick’s Sporting Goods just to name a few. And anyone visiting Madison Junior High will be blown away by the cutting edge training equipment that Lawler has attracted to this program. “In all honesty, there are NFL, NBA, and MLB trainers who would be green with envy if they saw the equipment that we have,” Lawler said. “In a very real sense Madison Junior High is the Mecca for kid’s fitness in America today.”

For Example…

For example, when MJH students hustle in at the end of gym class, it’s common to see every student in class placing his or her Polaris heart rate monitor back in its appropriate location before heading off to the showers. “Polaris has graciously provided us with enough heart rate monitors to cover every student in class. And with the help of these devices, our kids learn all about their own cardiovascular system, and how exercise affects it,” Lawler said.

Each student works with this kind of equipment several times a week and they learn about fitness in a very hands-on way. “When they graduate from high school they’ll have all the info necessary to keep themselves fit for the rest of their life,” said Lawler.

The PE4Life curriculum takes its students beyond cardio fitness, venturing into strength development, agility, quickness, and flexibility. So it’s not only the high tech, 21st century characteristics that distinguish this unique program apart from almost everything else in the nation. It’s the cutting edge comprehensiveness that really makes it stand out.

The PE4Life Academy

There are good reasons why physical educators and educational administrators travel great distances to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch what Lawler’s students are doing. And that hands-on informational experience is called the PE4Life Academy.

“I get calls from some of the top professors in some of America’s top colleges and universities who come from various parts of the nation in order to see what our kids are doing differently here in District #203. We’ve worked hard for over a decade to bring this program to life, and I think it’s safe to say that our entire community takes pride in what our kids have accomplished. It’s one of those things that distinguishes Naperville and makes it such a great place to live.”

Much More Than Just a Childhood Obesity Prevention Strategy

I reality PE4Life is much more than just a childhood obesity prevention strategy. It’s a fully equipped, fully funded, comprehensive kid’s fitness project whose most eloquent claim to fame is that it’s been tested under real world circumstances, and it has proven to be effective. And in a world full of hand wringing and theoretical talk, projects that actually work tend to stand out. For a full explanation just Google PE4Life and you’ll get all the info you’ll want.

Operation Pull Your Own Weight

On the other side of the tracks (literally on the other side of the Mississippi River) sits another childhood obesity prevention program that’s also been proven to work. It’s called Operation Pull Your Own Weight (OPYOW), and in almost every conceivable way OPYOW is the polar opposite of Naperville’s PE4Life.

One Part of an At Risk Grant

OPYOW was developed at Jefferson Elementary School from 1990-1994*, and was originally underwritten by a state of Iowa At-Risk Grant that aimed to improve the self esteem and related performances of the kids who attended Jefferson School.
“OPYOW was the physical component of the self esteem recipe that we were asked to develop,” said former Jefferson School Principal Henry Reams. “It was based on the old gym teacher’s observation that kids who can do pull ups, can’t be obese. So the more Jefferson students who learned to pull their own weight, the fewer we’d have doing battle with obesity and related issues. And as we all know, obesity drags a kids self esteem down faster than anything you can think of,” said Reams.

Financing OPYOW With Spare Change

Although the grant covered the salaries and related expenses for four teachers, there was almost no budget for fitness equipment, and certainly no corporate sponsors. So Reams and company drove to the local Farm and Fleet, where with pennies from the spare change drawer they financed all the materials required to build sixteen height adjustable pull up bars (one for every K-2 classroom in school), the only equipment necessary to implement the program.

They asked an Industrial Arts class at Davenport Central High to cut the pipe and chains to the right length, and the district’s maintenance department to install one height adjustable pull up bar in every (sixteen) K-2 classroom in school. “I know we spent less than $200 dollars to outfit this entire aspect of the grant. You might say we funded OPYOW on a shoestring, begging, borrowing, and stealing everything we needed to get started. But if you check the results, it’s hard to be unimpressed with what our students accomplished,” said Reams.

What Were the Results?

So what exactly were the results of OPYOW? Over a four year period, from the fall of 1990 through the spring of 1994 hundreds of Jefferson School students not only developed the ability to do pull ups, but they also learned to look forward to their opportunity to get on the pull up bar and get stronger day after day, week after week, and month after month. “I’ve known lots of kids who want to be bad, but I’ve never met one that wants to be weak, in any way. And with OPYOW we taught students how to get strong in all kinds of ways,” Reams said.

What Else Did They Learn?

What else did Jefferson kids learn in OPYOW you ask? “Our kids learned that given the opportunity, they could tackle a difficult task by working at it regularly, making thin slices of progress over a period of time, and in the end they learned to expect success,” Reams said.
Jefferson’s students also learned that there are six things that increase your strength on the pull up bar, including…

o regular work

o eating right

o getting enough rest

o avoiding tobacco

o avoiding alcohol

o avoiding drugs

“Interestingly enough, when these same six strength building principles are applied to academics they make kids stronger in reading, writing, and arithmetic too,” Reams added.

Nobody Else Can Do It For You

One other thing Jefferson students learned from working on a pull up bar was that nobody else can do the work for you. “On the pull up bar our students learned that they had to take responsibility for getting their own work done, eating right, getting their rest, and avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. If they failed to do these things, the pull up bar knew immediately and denied the public success that all kids crave. It was a real eye opener,” Reams said, “and that may be the single most important thing our kids learned from OPYOW.”

OPYOW Shortcomings

What are the shortcomings of OPYOW? “The biggest void in the program was that it was built on the anecdotal observation that kids who can do pull ups can’t be obese,” said Reams. “In other words, to my knowledge nobody has ever compared the BMI’s of kids who can do pull ups against kids who can’t do pull ups in order to scientifically prove that they’re a legitimate antidote to obesity. By the same token nobody has ever tried to prove that your nose is located on your face either. Maybe both are too intuitively obvious to attract academia,” he added.

A second criticism of OPYOW claimed that, by virtue of focusing on one exercise alone, it lacked the comprehensiveness that characterizes all well conceived programs. “But the people who made those claims failed to see that this program never claimed to be comprehensive. Its only claim was that it’s a functional antidote to obesity…nothing more, nothing less. If you can do pull ups, you can’t be obese. By the same token, to the degree that it successfully discourages obesity, it also reduces the workload on the participant’s heart 24/7,” Reams said.

What Jefferson School students did prove beyond a shadow of a doubt was that, given the right opportunity, almost all kids can learn to perform pull ups. “And to the degree that the old coach’s intuition is true, Operation Pull Your Own Weight is the simplest and most efficient childhood obesity prevention strategy anyone ever devised,” Reams added with a smile.

PE4Life Shortcomings?

How about shortcomings in PE4Life? This program has all the scientific documentation that anyone could ever want. They have money. They have equipment. They have nice neighborhoods and well funded schools. They have a comprehensive 21st century fitness strategy that successfully combats obesity. And school districts that have plenty of money should definitely check it out and see if PE4Life is the answer to their problems.

Lawler suggests that the stakes are now so high that we can no longer afford to use the excuse that school districts can’t afford a viable obesity prevention program. By the same token there are 45,000,000 people in America today who are unable to afford health insurance, and it does little good to tell them that their lack of money is no excuse. They’re still unable to afford health insurance no matter how you spin it. Are school districts any different?

Equipment Dependency VS Free Agency

On the other hand, even if your school district is overflowing with funds, the PE4Life orientation tends to produce students who are dependent on the high tech equipment that the program is built around. In other words, without access to expensive, high tech, 21st century fitness equipment, PE4Life has little to offer.

In contrast OPYOW creates students who are dependent on a ten dollar, doorway pull up bar, or the closest tree limb. You could call it Tom and Huck fitness. Their expressed goal is what they call Free Agency (no dependency), and they claim that it’s Mother Nature’s antidote to childhood obesity. Now is anyone suddenly feeling a strong desire for a banana?

Beginning of Sidebar

Similarities between PE4Life and OPYOW include…

o Both have succeeded under real life (as opposed to theoretical) conditions

o Both put the responsibility for success in the hands of the student

o Both were developed by guys from Iowa

o Both feature life long lessons that are tucked in between the lines

Differences between PE4Life and OPYOW

o PE4Life was built on empirical data, OPYOW was built on common sense

o PE4Life requires plenty of money, OPYOW can be implemented on a shoestring

o PE4Life requires lots of equipment, OPYOW requires a height adjustable pull up bar

o PE4Life requires extensive training, OPYOW can be taught by any parent volunteer

o PE4Life requires lots of space for equipment, OPYOW requires no extra space

o PE4Life requires several hours per week, OPYOW requires five minutes per week

o PE4Life encourages equipment dependency, OPYOW encourages free agency

o PE4Life requires a “professional setting,” OPYOW can easily be taught at home

o PE4Life’s strength is its comprehensiveness, OPYOW’s strength is its simplicity

o PE4Life is more than obesity prevention, but for OPYOW that’s the whole enchilada

o PE4Life is alive and kicking, OPYOW ran out of funding over a decade ago

End of Sidebar

The Choice is Yours

So if you have plenty of money, space, equipment, and time to train your trainers, then PE4Life may be a viable option. On the other hand if your school is short on funds, your teachers are already overloaded to the gills, and you have almost no extra time in your curriculum, then the simplicity of Operation Pull Your Own Weight may be more your cup of tea.

*Despite four years of well documented success, OPYOW has been inactive since the grant ran out in the spring of 1994. But with childhood obesity running rampant, there’s a movement afoot to breathe life back into this simple, cost effective, tried and true childhood obesity prevention strategy that’s been proven to work. They’re in the market for corporate sponsors.