A lot of students in Clay County will be watching their step — make that steps — in the coming months.
The county school system is taking part in a fitness program in which all fourth- and fifth-graders, more than 500 students, will get a pedometer to keep track of the number of steps they take.
It is the first rural county in Kentucky in the program.
The goal is to motivate students to be more physically active in a county where one research project found that 47 percent of children were overweight or obese, said Deann Allen, instructional supervisor for the Clay County school system.
"We want to see some changes," Allen said.
The program, announced Monday, is a collaboration of the school system, Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville and Manchester Memorial Hospital.
Kosair is providing the pedometers, which will cost about $15,000, said Therese Sirles, director of child advocacy at the hospital.
Kosair started a similar program last year with about 600 students in Louisville. That program has had some successes, but officials want to see how it would work in a rural area that has fewer places such as skate parks to help kids be active, Sirles said.
Clay County lacks some of those amenities, but local leaders are passionate about the community and about helping kids, which was a key reason Kosair selected Clay County for the pilot program, Sirles said.
State Sen. Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, helped bring the program to his hometown after he saw a presentation by Kosair.
Kentucky has some of the highest rates in the nation of obesity and related health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, and the percentage of overweight and obese people in Clay County is greater than the state as a whole by some measures.
A Washington Post story that focused on the county last year said it was the unhealthiest county in the state.
Sponsors of the pedometer project hope that making kids more conscious of their activity levels, and getting them to be more active, will "filter up" and get their parents moving as well, Stivers said.
Kosair collected weight and body-mass index readings from the students in Louisville this school year and will measure them again at the end of the year to see whether they've improved.
The hospital and health department in Clay County will assess students as part of the program, Allen said.
The program, which will include nutrition education, blends efforts to promote healthier living with lessons in math, geography and other subjects.
It does that through challenges to walk enough steps to get to Houston, for instance, with lessons about the geography or history of places along the route.
The data from the pedometers can be downloaded into computers to keep track of students' progress.
There will be prizes for winning challenges, but also for writing essays so students won't have to walk the farthest or fastest to win, Allen said.
"We're all going to be winners because we're all going to feel healthier," Allen said.
The prizes will be activity-based, such as balls, and the reward parties will feature frozen yogurt and fruit, Allen said.
The students in Clay County will wear their pedometers only at school initially but can get credit for activities outside school, Sirles said.
The students will work up to taking the units home, Allen said.
Some teachers are taking part in the program as well, and the Manchester hospital has bought pedometers for hundreds of employees and challenged the kids to see who can walk the most, Sirles said.
Stivers said he also hopes to lead by example. He lost 13 pounds over the holidays last year by getting more active, he said.
"If you're going to ask other people to do it, you've got to do it yourself," Stivers said.
Sirles said Kosair will start another pedometer pilot in Owensboro later this year.
If the data show the program will work in Clay County and other rural areas, that would help the hospital seek money to expand it, she said.
"I am hoping that it will just be a huge success," she said.