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Actively pursuing fitness

The Fayette County Schools and the University of Kentucky are launching a joint effort to improve health and physical fitness among students and faculty members in the county school system.

Clays Mill Elementary School and Tates Creek High School, with enrollment totaling more than 2,200, will be the first two schools to join the Physical Activity and Wellness Schools program, or PAWS. Other county schools will follow, and officials hope PAWS eventually will expand to other school systems in the area, possibly becoming a national model.

Problems with obesity and sedentary lifestyles among American youngsters have been widely documented over the past few years. And while American children usually are fairly physically active through the early years of elementary school, national statistics show that they become less and less active as they move toward high school.

Reports also show that the amount of physical education youngsters receive has declined nationally as schools focus ever more strongly on raising academic test scores.

The PAWS project was announced jointly by UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. and Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman at Clays Mill Elementary Monday morning. It is designed to supplement PE classes and other health activities that already are available in schools.

Among other things, faculty fitness experts from UK's Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion will work directly with both Clays Mill and Tates Creek to assess the health and physical activity levels of teachers, and to establish walking programs and other efforts to help them lose weight, reduce cholesterol and boost activity. They would then become role models for their students.

The fitness experts also will work with the schools to improve health and education curriculums for students, including developing new ways to help students be more active.

For example, officials said UK experts will work directly in classrooms to help teachers combine physical activity with learning, as well as initiating wellness activities catered to particular schools' needs and providing assistance to sustain the programs over the long term.

"It has been well documented that children's learning improves when they are more active," said Melody Noland, chairwoman of UK's kinesiology department..

"We tend to think that kids have to sit still to learn. But there is a lot of research that says it's better for them to take a break, get some activity and then return to study. Also, if kids are healthier they attend school more, which improves test scores."

Noland said PAWS will include a research component to gauge its success and whether students who go through the program continue to be physically active as they reach high school age.

PAWS will be off and running right away, she said.

Organizers expect to spend about $20,000 on the program this year, and $15,000 in each of the next two years.

About $35,000 of that will come in gifts from UK graduates Steve and Elaine Harris of Woodlands, Texas. Other funding will come from UK football great George Blanda and his wife, Betty Blanda, through an endowed education professorship at UK that they funded.